A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“We take for granted that we use the same slab of hardware to shop. manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favourite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention – the stored-program universal computer – Turing changed the way we lived.”
So says Jack Copeland in the opening chapter of Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age.
Many people have never heard of Alan Turing. Of those who do know who he was, most will think of him as the leader of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park who broke the fiendishly complex Enigma code. Some of them will also know that he was a homosexual who was prosecuted in 1952 for acts of gross indecency and sentenced to ‘chemical castration’. A few will also tell you that he committed suicide – a brilliant, tormented and unhappy man driven to his death by the barbaric treatment he received at the hands of the country he had served so well.
Up until a month ago, I would have been one of the few. I could even have told you that he committed suicide in a grotesque Snow White parody by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. And, like most people, I would have been wrong on all counts, except the most basic facts.
Bletchley Park … Tick.
Genius … Tick.
Homosexual … Tick.
Chemical castration … Tick.
Tormented and unhappy … Apparently not.
Suicide … Probably not.
Turing is not – nor does it claim to be – a detailed biography. Rather, it concentrates on restoring Alan Turing to his rightful place at the forefront of the computer age. Until comparatively recently, Turing’s massive contribution to modern computers, artificial intelligence and stored programming was largely overlooked. In fact, a trawl of the literature would have revealed an almost total absence of two names – Alan Turing and Thomas ‘Tommy’ Flowers, with whom Turing worked at Bletchley Park. Flowers it was who designed Colossus – the world’s first programmable electronic computer – which crucially speeded up the deciphering of the ‘Tunny’ code – not as famous as Enigma, but far more complex. Turing was the theoretician, working out HOW to break the codes, Flowers was the engineer who made it happen, and together they changed the shape of the future – but because it all happened at Bletchley Park, under cover of the Official Secrets Act, the history books bypassed them – along with all the other workers, thinkers and dreamers hidden in the Buckinghamshire countryside.
Turing sets the record straight and while the technical chapters describing the developments at Bletchley and afterwards are a bit heavy going, they’re devoid of geek-speak and only require a little concentration to understand.
The portrait Copeland paints of Turing the man – as opposed to Turing the theoretician/mathematician/computer scientist/cryptanalyst – is an engaging one. True, he was a man who preferred to work alone, but he was also funny and well-liked with a physical and mental toughness that is signally missing from most thumbnail sketches of the ‘tormented genius’. Tall and strongly built with a smile that lit up his boyish face, he was a formidable athlete – an ultra-marathon runner who could have competed internationally had he chosen to.
Even the famous ‘chemical castration’ – which involved flooding his body with female hormones for a year – didn’t seem to faze him unduly. He tolerated it with cheerful stoicism, then went right back to finding the young men he met ‘luscious’. In fact, at the time of his death, he was at the height of his powers, talking excitedly of the work that lay ahead, accepting speaking engagements – looking to the future.
And then he was dead – with a partly eaten apple at his bedside and internal organs that smelled strongly of cyanide.
Copeland argues cogently against suicide. There was no doubt of the cause of death – the indicators of cyanide poisoning were unmissable, but the apple was never tested, and the assumption that it was suicide so universal that it doesn’t seem as if anyone ever questioned it except his mother and his friends. The presence of a small personal chemistry lab, in an enclosed closet just off the bedroom, containing a bubbling pan of liquid and a jam jar full of cyanide crystals merely confirmed the diagnosis. Unhappy homosexual + tormented genius + apple + easy access to cyanide = suicide.
Except it doesn’t. Turing was in the habit of having an apple at his bedside and taking a few bites before he went to sleep – and his friends spoke of a man who loved life and its challenges and met them will the same resilience that had been a his hallmark since youth.
In his home laboratory he was experimenting with electrolysis – a process which involved cyanide – and the production of cyanide gas. As Copeland points out, in an enclosed space it would be all too easy to breathe in a lethal dose of cyanide gas especially if you’re a bit absent minded and messy around the lab – as Turing was. Colleagues said he was entirely capable of putting a half-eaten apply down in a puddle of cyanide and then picking it up again to eat it.
There is another theory besides suicide and accidental death, of course – that of murder. And, although it’s a little outlandish, it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility. Turing was a man who knew a great deal about his country’s secrets and as a homosexual, he would be considered a security risk.
The two clues that could indicate murder are both intriguing ones – and were never apparently pursued. The first was that death from cyanide poisoning is not a peaceful one; it usually causes convulsions. Yet Turing was described as lying in bed in an almost normal position, with the bedclothes pulled neatly up to his neck. As he was found by his housekeeper, it’s quite possible that she attempted to make him ‘respectable’ before she called the police – and this would have been equally true of self-administered cyanide of course.
The second clue, however, is thoroughly intriguing. Turing’s shoes were outside his bedroom door, as if he had placed them there for cleaning and polishing by a servant. But it was not a thing he did. His housekeeper, who lived out – was his only servant, and she described the placing of his shoes outside the door as ‘unusual’.
Did someone administer the cyanide to Turing, wait while he died, then – unfamiliar with his lifestyle, tidy him up and attempt to make everything look like a suicide?
We’ll probably never know and, as Jack Copeland says, unless and until new evidence comes to light, it’s Alan Turing’s extraordinary life and work that really matter. However you look at it, the debt we owe him is enormous and – for good or ill – he shaped the world in which we now live.
Oxford University Press.
Hardback. November 2012. ISBN: 978-0-19-963979-3. 320pp. Paperback. October 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-871918-2. 320pp.
Also available as an eBook.