Charles Petzold

Petition for an Apology to Alan Turing

August 18, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

If you're a British citizen, you can sign on-line petitions to the Prime Minister, one of which states We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to apologize for the prosecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death.

Mathematician Alan Turing is one of the major icons of the computer age. His early paper "On Computable Numbers..." established fundamental concepts of the nature and limititations of digital computation. He later worked on several seminal computer projects in England, and he was one of the first people to explore the concepts and implications of artificial intelligence. During World War II, Turing was among the thousands of people assembled at Bletchley Park to help break codes used by the Germany military, and while it's important not to minimize the work done by everyone else at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing's work there in developing techniques to break the German Enigma is widely regarded as extremely significant.

Alan Turing was also gay, and in 1952 he was arrested for the crime of "gross indecency" for having sex with another man. He pleaded guilty to avoid jail and was instead subjected to hormone treatments that rendered him impotent. His career opportunities were also affected: Homosexuals were widely considered to be "security risks" during this period, so Turing wouldn't be able to work on any government projects. Nor would he be able to travel to the United States as he had during the war. A 1952 U.S. law prohibited admission to the country of "aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality." Perhaps for these reasons (or perhaps for reasons we will never know) Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.

I learned about the petition to the Prime Minister through a blog entry by Professor PZ Myers, which as of this morning has accumulated 120 blog comments (and still going strong), and which also cites an article about the petition from the Manchester Evening News. Turing was living outside Manchester, England, and doing research at the University of Manchester at the time of his arrest.

The more I thought about this petition, however, the more it bothered me. It seems to imply that Turing should have been exempted from the law because of his past achievements.

There's no doubt in my mind that the "gross indecency" law (more properly known as Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885) was a bad piece of legislation, and even in 1885 it was controversial. The sexual acts covered under the law had never before been illegal in Britain (at least when performed in private), and the law could easily be used for purposes of blackmail. The other prominent victim of Section 11 was Oscar Wilde (who was punished with two years hard labor, which probably contributed to his early death at the age of 46), but many others were also prosecuted.

So why should the Prime Minister apologize to Alan Turing and not those many others prosecuted under Section 11? Some of them are undoubtedly still alive.

I certainly like the sentiment that seeks to honor Alan Turing in various ways, but not this particular solution. June 23, 2012, is the hundredth anniversary of Turing's birth, and 2012 has been declared Alan Turing Year, so perhaps the British government can begin planning for something a little more meaningful that an apology — something that commemorates Turing's achievements rather than focusing on missteps of the British legal system.

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“Petzold will be a stalwart companion to any reader who undertakes to read Turing's classic with his aid. The Annotated Turing will also be quite enjoyable to a more casual reader who chooses to dip into various parts of the text.” — Martin Davis in American Scientist