For any self-professed nerd, coding or computer science enthusiast, the name Alan Turing will have significant meaning. Alan Turing was the father of computer science and computer programming, except when he was alive, such terms were not used. He simply wanted to “build a brain” to aid humans in analyzing data and occasionally think for humans.
Turing was the original ‘nerd’, before Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak were even a thought. Turing’s life’s major achievement was cracking the German Enigma, an encryption code machine which the Nazi forces used to communicate with their commanding officers and it was what Hitler used to communicate with his generals too. The Enigma was deemed undecipherable, many of the brightest and best minds in Great Britain, France, Poland even Germans have tried and failed. The only people who have cracked the code were the Poles in 1932:
The Poles had broken Enigma in 1932, when the encoding machine was undergoing trials with the German Army. But when the Poles broke Enigma, the cipher altered only once every few months. With the advent of war, it changed at least once a day, giving 159 million million million possible settings to choose from. The Poles decided to inform the British in July 1939 once they needed help to break Enigma and with invasion of Poland imminent.
Many in the upper echelons of the British government and intelligence services have already secretly resigned to the fact that Enigma was undecipherable, even though they kept recruiting mathematicians, cryptanalysts, staticians, even national chess champions to try and break the code. Alan Turing was not recruited, he walked into Navy Commander Alistair Denniston’s office for an interview. Turing went to the interview acting as though he already got the job and he was the only person able to do the job. He was cocky bordering on rude, snappy and showed no deference to the office of the navy commander. Even though the Enigma was a top state secret, no one outside of the most inner intelligence circles is supposed to know of its existence, Turing knew about it and said he could decipher the undecipherable. There was nothing that excited him more than solving a problem others couldn’t solve.
Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in London. He was from an upper-middle class family of the gentry (but not aristocratic) and his father was in the Indian civil service. He came from a family of means and his education reflected that. Because his father was in the Indian civil service, his parents were away a lot. Alan Turing and his brother closest to him in age, Julius, lived in a series of English foster homes until his father retired from the Indian civil service in 1926 and returned to England full time. Like many upper-class childhoods of that era, it was a childhood marked by isolation, loneliness, academic rigidity and emotional suppression.
Alan Turing showed a gift in mathematics (applied and theoretical) and applied physics since he was a boy in boarding school but during those times, those gifts and interest were not appreciated. People of his class are to study the classics and languages, maths (as it’s referred to in the UK) and the sciences are for dilettantes and people who aren’t serious about their future. His mother Ethel Sara Turing knew her son was an oddball who had different interests than other boys of his age, she didn’t encourage it but she didn’t discourage him either, she secretly hoped those interests would go away and he’d go back to learning serious things.
The great tragedy of Turing’s life was his arrest and conviction for gross indecency, in one fell swoop he lost his security clearance with the government and his reputation was forever tarnished as his arrest made the papers. He was a homosexual and in 1951 he was caught out having relations with a young man in the city of Manchester in the north of England, a far more conservative part of England where such things are not tolerated. ‘The Imitation Game’ focuses on his achievements as well as the injustice and bigotry that was meted out to him. Turing was a war hero to the British government, except his work was so highly classified no one knew of his true contributions until 50 years later.
The story is told in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to present day, during the war and his childhood while at boarding school. The movie begins with an “investigation” by the Manchester police of a possible break-in at the home of Alan Turing (he was teaching at the University of Manchester during that time). When the police officers Nock and Staehl arrive at Turing’s home, Turing acted suspiciously and told the “bobbies” everything was fine, nothing was stolen and what he really needed was a good cleaning as his house was a tip and unless either one of them wanted to put on an apron and clean his house for him, he would have no use for them and would like them to leave.
Turing’s tone was very condescending and in this exchange, the snobbery of the upper-class was revealed. He treated the Mancunian police officers as intellectual inferiors. They were clearly working class, and their almost unintelligible northern accents proves that. For being an English gentleman, who received the best education in the world, he was sorely lacking in manners, social graces and basic decency when dealing with another human being. His rudeness and abruptness is not only confined to Mancunian police officers, he’s like that with everyone, even his superiors and friends.
Officer Nock was suspicious and felt that there was more to this break-in than meets the eye. So he decides to do his own investigation and requests Alan Turing’s war records. When he was told by the Home Office that Turing’s war records were classified, he got even more suspicious. Nock forged Turing’s name on an official war records request form and sent it in to the Home Office again, he got an empty envelope back. The Home Office wasn’t going to supply Turing’s war records under any circumstances. Nock got even more suspicious, he begun to suspect that Turing was a Soviet spy, as he was from London, he went to Cambridge for university, which was a known breeding ground for communism at the time. Nock suspected Turing was part of or associated with the ‘Cambridge 5’ of Soviet spies.
On a side note here, this exchange with the Manchester police officers are a pattern of Turing’s life. Turing could have made this easily go away had he been nice and courteous and even ‘professor-like’ to the police officers. The officers, due to entrenched social class system, would have respected Turing’s higher station in life and left him alone. But because Turing chose to be so rude and condescending, the police officers decided to investigate him, which eventually led to the discovery that he was a homosexual and the ‘break-in’ was done by one of the rent boys he solicited and his life and secrets came crashing down.
The movie then flashes back to the Bletchley Park days, the site where hundreds of men and women were working night and day intercepting German messages and trying to decipher the codes. In a small hut or warehouse near Bletchley Park was where Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) attempted to build the first computer to try to break the Enigma. Since the Enigma had 159 million million million settings and those settings reset at midnight each day, there is no way humans can even attempt to break any of the codes before it resets at midnight every day. So, Turing decides from early on that only a machine can even attempt to decipher the Enigma. He decided to build a “Turing Machine” with the specific intent to break the Enigma.
Turing spent the day building the machine while the others spent their time trying to manually decipher the messages. This caused some resentment amongst the men, since Turing declared himself to be the smartest amongst them, why isn’t he helping them decode the messages but instead he’s building this machine which he names “Christopher” (after a childhood paramour who died). Turing didn’t care what anyone thought of him, he was convinced “Christopher” was their best shot at cracking the Enigma.
Another side plot of the story is the relationship between Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Turing, Joan Clarke was recruited after Turing put a very difficult crossword puzzle in the paper along with an advertisement which read anyone who can finish the crossword puzzle in 10 minutes or less can send a letter with their contact information to the paper and they may have an opportunity to work at the job of a lifetime. Keira Knightley was one of the advertisement respondents, she was a Cambridge student with a double first degree in Mathematics, because she was a woman, she was not offered a diploma when she finished her courses. Like Turing, Joan Clarke was a natural mathematician. After receiving her letter in the mail, she came to the secret location where all the other prospective interviewees were and she realizes that she’s the only woman. Turing then gave all the prospective cryptographers a task in which they had to finish in under 6 minutes. He reveals to the head of MI6 Sir Stewart Menzies (pronounced Mingis) that it is not doable as it took him 8 minutes to finish, he simply wanted to see who could even finish the task. Joan Clarke finished it in under 6 minutes and was promptly hired. However, when it came time for Joan Clarke to show up to work, she was nowhere to be seen. Turing then raced to her parents home and finds out her parents didn’t allow her to go back because she was amongst a lot of strange men which is “indecorous” and because of the distance she’ll have to live in the dormitories there so her parents disapproved. Turing assured her parents that Joan will be very “decorous” and she is to work with the secretaries, who are all women and will room with the ladies. Her parents agreed to let her go. Turing forged a very close friendship with Joan and they were each other’s intellectual soul mates. A couple of years into the war, Joan’s parents again recalled her back home, stating she was now 25 and unmarried and it was about time she looked for a husband and settled down. Turing didn’t want her to leave as he enjoyed her company and she was good at her job, he proposed marriage to Joan to solve the no husband problem. Joan knew Turing was probably a homosexual but she accepted his proposal. She didn’t mind that he was gay and she wanted a marriage of intellectual equals. After all the work that she’s done, there’s no way she was going to go back to being a housewife.
About two years into building “Christopher” at considerable expense to the government, and still producing no results, Commander Denniston was on the verge of firing Turing. Denniston never liked Turing to begin with because he was rude, obnoxious and didn’t follow the chain of command orders. But he could overlook all this if Turing was contributing to the war effort and the defeat of the Nazis. Denniston had tried to use many excuses to fire Turing, even accusing him of a being a Soviet spy as there were whispers that one of the men in the cryptanalyst group was a Soviet spy. It wasn’t Turing, it was John Cairncross, and he wasn’t a very good spy. Menzies already knew Cairncross was a spy and deliberately put him in Bletchley Park so that the Soviets who were fighting the Nazis alongside the Allies can have access to some of the intelligence the British were gathering. But Cairncross doesn’t know that MI6 knows he is a Soviet spy. It had to be done through the MI6 because the government would not authorize sharing of intelligence with a communist regime, which on an idealogical level is still an enemy of Britain. When Turing found out Cairncross is the Soviet spy, he threatened to tell Menzies but Cairncross threatens Turing back with revealing his “secret” which is his homosexuality if he tells Menzies. But Menzies already knew everything, including Turing was gay. He is not the head of MI6 for nothing.
What sealed his fate ultimately is when Turing went over Denniston’s head and wrote to the prime minister Winston Churchill directly to get funding to build his machine, Churchill not only agreed and ordered Denniston and everyone else to stay out of the way and promoted Turing as the leader of cryptanalyst team replacing the twice national chess champion Hugh Alexander. This left Denniston fuming and was ready to fire Turing at the first opportunity. When Denniston wanted to fire Turing for wasting government funds building a machine that didn’t work, the other members of the team, Alexander, Cairncross and Hilton threatened to quit too if Denniston fired Turing. Denniston gave them one month to make the machine work or else the machine will be turned off and funding stopped.
An epiphany came when Turing heard his fiancee Joan Clarke chatting with her friend Helen at the pub after work about how the German messages every morning are the same and how it became a running joke with the girls. Every morning begins with a weather report at 6:00 AM and ends with “Heil Hitler”. Turing then realized instead of programming Christopher to decipher every possible setting variation, they should just put all the fixed variables into Christopher and then they fill in the gaps. In the end, it’s the German’s penchant and fastidiousness for organization and precision that gave them away and of course “Heil Hitler”. Turing programmed “6:00 AM” and “Heil Hitler” into Christopher as those are the same words used at the first message transmission every morning, and viola, the Enigma was cracked. Overnight, they were able to locate all of the German U-boats and British convoys in the Atlantic.
But Turing’s genius doesn’t stop here. Turing, who can be very logical to the point of being cold, figured out right away that they cannot act one every piece of intelligence gathered from the Enigma machine otherwise the Germans will find out the British Intelligence Services cracked the code and they will recalibrate the settings of the Enigma again and they’ve just wasted two years of their time. So while everyone is celebrating and trying to call Commander Denniston, Turing stopped them, even at the expense of passenger convoys in the Atlantic and soldiers. Hugh Alexander was angry with Turing as was Peter Hilton (his brother was on board one of the navy ships in the cross hair of German U-boats) but they soon realized Turing was right. They have to choose to reveal their intelligence in a methodical, statistical manner where it cannot tip off the Germans but also secure the Allies victory. They have to calculate with statistical and mathematical accuracy to secure the Allies victory with minimal loss to life but it cannot rouse suspicions with the Germans.
Turing and Joan Clarke decided to go to Sir Stewart Menzies with their information and plan. Turing suggested that Menzies should feed ‘false intelligence’ to the government and military on how they came about the German positions and even go so far to spread this intelligence overseas within earshot of the Germans so that they are for certain their Enigma encrypting machine was not cracked. Instead, Turing’s team will give Menzies which German positions to attack everyday, based on statistical analysis and chance. Menzies remarked to Turing and Joan Clarke that the fate of soldiers and civilians will be at the hands of “mathematics” and “statistics”? To which Turing answered “yes”, it’s the only way.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing after the initial breakthrough, the German’s changed the Enigma settings a few more times but Turing and his team already had a good grasp of how the German messages and their subsequent codes worked and they were able to decode all the messages. In the end, it was estimated with Turing’s work, the war was shortened by at least 2 years if not more and 14 million lives saved.
Turing narrates rather cynically, this whole war was protrayed as a clash of civilizations, a fight between freedom and tyranny and how God chose the side of good over evil, but it’s not. It was careful application of maths and statistics that won the war. Anyone who believes otherwise is foolish.
When the war was over and Allied victory is declared, Sir Stewart Menzies ordered Turing and his team to never speak about their work during the war to anyone and to never see each other again. Their one last task was to burn all the papers. Menzies said “this war is over, there could be another, but with any luck, we may never have to see each other again.”
Another huge part of Turing’s life is his homosexuality. He never denied he was a homosexual and he wasn’t ashamed of it either. He realized he was gay when he was very young when he fell in love with another boy at his school Christopher Morcom,
[who was] a year ahead of him at Sherborne, to whom Alan Turing found himself powerfully attracted in 1928. He, Christopher Morcom, gave Turing a vital period of intellectual companionship — which ended with Morcom’s sudden death [from bovine tuberculosis] in February 1930.
Turing’s conviction that he must now do what Morcom could not, apparently sustained him through a long crisis. For three years at least, as we know from his letters to Morcom’s mother, his thoughts turned to the question of how the human mind, and Christopher’s mind in particular, was embodied in matter; and whether accordingly it could be released from matter by death.
When Turing went to Cambridge for university, he was able to fully explore his homosexuality as a lot of Cambridge University students explored their sexuality while on campus, whether they were homosexual or not. I suppose as long as you don’t hold hands and openly kiss whilst crossing the hallowed halls of this respected institution, what you do in your rooms is entirely your business. Evelyn Waugh wrote at length about this sort of permissiveness in his novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and how Cambridge University for upper-class people at least is a place where boys can safely explore their sexuality without the legal repercussions.
Being a homesexual wasn’t a crime on its own but engaging in homosexual activities was a crime (gross indecency) in Great Britain, therefore he wasn’t out and proud. Because of his highly logical mind, his homosexuality was very natural to him, it was how he was born, therefore there was nothing wrong with it. When he was arrested on gross indecency charges, he didn’t admit or deny the offenses and he also told the police officers he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being a homosexual either. The judge gave Turing two options, go to prison for two years or take a hormone therapy which will chemically castrate him and cure him of his “homosexual predilections”. This way he could keep his post at the university and continue his work and research. But after a year of being on chemical castration treatment, the side effects and personal humiliation got to be too much for him. He chose to end his life by eating an apple laced with cyanide.
He was found by his cleaner when she came in on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother believed he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but it is more credible that he had successfully contrived his death to allow her alone to believe this. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.
Besides his remarkable genius and intellect, another strong feature marked Alan Turing’s life is his profound loneliness, his solitary life save for rent boys. Since his school friend Christopher Morcom died, he never really formed any other deep friendships aside from Joan Clarke. After the war, Joan Clarke married and moved to Scotland after her husband’s retirement due to frail health. They remained good friends after even after their ‘engagement’ ended. Turing couldn’t go through with the wedding knowing he is a homosexual and even though Joan Clarke was unfazed by that, it was unfair to her.
For such a brilliant and accomplished professor (as no one knew he helped cracked the Enigma during the war yet), as the inventor of ‘The Turing Machine’ – a precursor to the modern day computer, this is an ignominious end. A humiliating end on a personal and professional level. To chemically castrate a red blooded male just because he was gay and then splash his disgrace and private business all over the newspapers so that he is thoroughly humiliated in front of his peers as well, Turing didn’t deserve this even if he wasn’t a war hero who saved millions of lives. Turing didn’t deserve this even if he was a complete “ass” as Joan Clarke calls him. No human being deserves this.
In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon. Turing is now considered a LGBT icon, a title he most likely would have scoffed at.
Like all Hollywood adaptations of true life events, certain artistic liberties are taken to dramatize events. The machine wasn’t called “Christopher”, it was called Victory and his whole team worked on building the machine not just Turing himself. The movie was filmed in England, some parts of it in the real Bletchley Park where men and women toiled day and night to defeat the Nazis by breaking their codes. Alan Turing’s niece was sceptical about this movie at first, but after she saw it, she were happy with the result as it honored the life and achievements of her uncle and didn’t focus on his disgrace.
I enjoyed the movie tremendously. I am a nerd in some sense. I like math, I like computers especially the early computer pioneers who built these machines from scratch and programmed everything from scratch. Alan Turing’s approach to building a computer is like building an extension of the human brain. It’s to assist humans not take over as the human brain. The human brain to Turing is still far superior than any machine can build.