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Alan Turing - World War II hero and genius.

How British WWII hero Alan Turing saved our world

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Alan Turing - World War II hero and genius.

British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist Alan Turning
British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist Alan Turning

The reason that you're not reading this article in German right now - whilst living under the sixth decade of the Third Reich and fascism - is in significant part thanks to a man you may never have heard of.

Even the fact that you're reading this on a computer right now is largely thanks to him.

His name was Alan Turing. Most people still don't know who he was. That must change.

Turing was a prodigiously gifted British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist.

In fact, Turing is considered the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. He designed the programming of the world's first commercial computer. He was also the inventor of the Turing Machine in 1935, a device which even to this day all digital computers are modeled on.

Crucially, he was central to the building of The Bombe, an electro-mechanical machine which greatly helped in the breaking of the Enigma code used by the Nazi's during World War Two.

By 1942 his team was decoding up to 39,000 Enigma messages a month. This rose to 84,000, or about two messages decoded every minute.

Winston Churchill said that Turing's work shortened the Second World War by at least two years, saving millions of lives.

Turing also helped decode the Fish cipher used by the German High Command to transmit messages between Hitler and senior officers in the field.

So Turing was an architect, many would say the architect, of the modern world - and he was living in it decades before the rest of us.

Although he was awarded an OBE in 1945 for services to the country, it would take another 30 years before the extent of his achievements would be publicly known. Last year marked the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

There's a reason so many of us still don't know who he is. Alan Turing was was homosexual. He was quite fearlessly homosexual in an era when it was still a crime. When it became known he lost his security clearance.

All of his heroism, all of his brilliance, the debt we owe to his staggering transformative genius was trumped by that one simple fact. Even most of his fellow scientists failed to support him. Given a choice between faith and reason, they failed the first and most basic test.

In 1952 he was convicted of acts of 'gross indecency.' They gave him a choice between prison or a process they called 'chemical castration.' The barbaric and pointless process of being injected with female hormones - it gave him female breasts, it rendered him impotent - proved so traumatic it eventually led to his suicide in 1954. He was 41.

Britain threw away their best chance to dominate the field of computer science when they prosecuted him. You cannot sufficiently express how much they traded for so little in return. Few who have contributed more have been so maligned.

Yesterday, after 59 years, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing a rare royal pardon. Only four royal pardons had been granted since the end of World War Two. The Establishment, knowing they did something indefensible, certainly took their time owning up. They stealthily slipped out the news yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve.

Turing's pardon reminds us that in the spectrum of human experience we always have a choice. We can stand confidently in the light of reason with gifted minds who enrich our lives and our understanding in immeasurable ways, or we can recoil and collapse into the dark faith of the fundamentalists.

We must make this choice every day. The world we inherit depends on who we follow. Perhaps the Queen will consider adding Oscar Wilde to that shameful list.

Turing lit the way for the whole of humanity. He literally saved us from ourselves. One of his colleagues commented 'Fortunately the authorities did not know that Turing was a homosexual. Otherwise we might have lost the war.'

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