One of my favorite things on this site is Steven Lloyd Wilson and Wojtek’s Storytellers series, which has almost nothing to do with pop-culture. They highlight important bits of history and some of the amazing people from the past that do not necessarily pop up in our history texts. If history class were half as interesting as the Storytellers series, there’d be a lot more unemployed history PhDs in the world.
One of my favorite Storytellers posts was on Alan Turing, a man I had never heard of until Steven wrote this amazing piece: The Heartbreaking Life and Death of Alan Turing. It’s one of those situations, like hearing a word you’d never heard before, where suddenly, you start hearing that word everywhere you go. That’s what happening with Turing: Steven’s piece pushed the man into my consciousness, and suddenly, I began seeing pieces about Alan Turing everywhere (to be fair, they may have always been there; I simply didn’t notice).
Anyway, Turing was a life-saving code breaker during World War II and a mathematician who adapted Kurt Gödel’s mathematics of logic into the theoretical application that became the basis for all computers. He was a brilliant man. He also happened to be gay during a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense.
As Steven writes:
Having invented the information age, revolutionized cryptography by spending the war years breaking every code the Nazis could devise, and planted the seeds of artificial intelligence and computer science, Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Of course, he committed the most heinous crime short of communism imaginable in postwar Britain. He was homosexual.
Not needing him to break any more codes, and not imagining at the time much use for those computing machines, the British government saw fit to convict him under the same statute that ruined Oscar Wilde’s life fifty years previously. Given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, Turing chose the latter. He dosed an apple with cyanide two years later, killing himself with Eve’s temptation and Newton’s inspiration. He was only 41 years old.
Had Turing not committed suicide, there’s no telling how many more contributions he could’ve made to society. It was a devastatingly sad fate, and while there’s nothing that the British government can do to bring back Turing and give us all those years of his life back, yesterday they at least did the honorable thing and formally pardoned him for his conviction on charges of homosexuality.
The pardon had to come from Queen Elizabeth II because, for some ungodly reason, Prime Minister David Cameron denied him a pardon last year. Why? I have no idea. But his refusal to do so kicked it upstairs to the Queen, who issued a rare “royal prerogative of mercy” so that Turing’s sentence — prison or chemical castration — would be considered “unjust and discriminatory.”
It’s a small gesture, and one that’s long past due, but as someone who only recently became familiar with this brilliant man, it is appreciated. Hopefully, in pardoning Turing, the Queen brings more attention to his works, his mind, and his legacy.