The Private Anguish of Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, a one time war hero who was ostracized with accusations of being gay, in a scene from "The Imitation Game." Jack English

This article is extracted from Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book that Inspired the Film The Imitation Game. Some text has been added by Newsweek to connect these extracts into a single narrative.

On May 25 2011, President Barack Obama, speaking to the United Kingdom parliament, singled out Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing as British contributors to science. Celebrity is an imperfect measure of significance, and politicians do not confer scientific status, but Obama's choice signalled that public recognition of Alan Turing had attained a level very much higher than in 1983, when my book "Alan Turing: The Enigma" first appeared.

Born in London on June 23 1912, Turing might just have lived to hear these words, had he not taken his own life on June 7 1954. He perished in a very different world, and his name had gone unmentioned in its legislative forums. Yet even then, in its secret circles, over which Eisenhower and Churchill still reigned, and in which the names of the National Security Agency and Britain's equivalent, GCHQ, were spoken in whispers, Turing had a unique place. He had been the chief backroom boy when American power overtook British in 1942, with a scientific role whose climax came on June 6 1944, just ten years before that early death.

Alan Turing played a central part in world history. Yet it would be misleading to portray his drama as a power play, or as framed by the conventional political issues of the twentieth century. He was not political as defined by contemporary intellectuals, revolving as they did round alignment or non-alignment with the Communist Party. Some of his friends and colleagues were indeed party members, but that was not his issue. Rather, it was his individual freedom of mind, including his sexuality, that mattered – a question taken much more seriously in the post-1968, and even more in the post-1989, era.

But beyond this, the global impact of pure science rises above all national boundaries, and the sheer timelessness of pure mathematics transcends the limitations of his twentieth-century span. When Turing returned to the prime numbers in 1950, they were unchanged from when he left them in 1939, wars and superpowers notwithstanding. Such is mathematical culture, and such was his life, presenting a real difficulty to minds set in literary, artistic or political templates.

Yet it is not easy to separate transcendence from emergency: it is striking how leading scientific intellects were recruited to meet the existential threat Britain faced in 1939. The struggle with Nazi Germany called not just for scientific knowledge but the cutting edge of abstract thought, and so Turing's quiet logical preparations in 1936–38 for the war of codes and ciphers made him the most effective anti-Fascist amongst his many anti-Fascist contemporaries.

The historical parallel with physics, with Turing as a figure roughly analogous to Robert Oppenheimer, "The Father of the Atomic Bomb," is striking. This legacy of 1939 is still unresolved, in the way that secret state purposes are seamlessly woven into intellectual and scientific establishments today, a fact that is seldom remarked upon.

Alan Turing (1912-1954). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

The same timelessness lies behind the central element of Turing's story: the universal machine of 1936, which became the general-purpose digital computer in 1945. The universal machine is the focal, revolutionary idea of Turing's life, but it did not stand alone; it flowed from his having given a new and precise formulation of the old concept of algorithm, or mechanical process. He could then say with confidence that all algorithms, all possible mechanical processes, could be implemented on a universal machine. His formulation became known immediately as "The Turing Machine," but now it is impossible not to see Turing machines as computer programs, or software.

Nowadays it is perhaps taken for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialized China can use the same computers as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s.

"I just can't believe it's as nice to go to bed with a girl as with a boy"

That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose, computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Turing in 1936, implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine.

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing's ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: "Every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form . . ." Donald Davies, one of Turing's 1946 colleagues, later developed such instruction tables (as Turing called programs) for "packet switching" and these grew into the Internet protocols.

Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing's universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Turing in 1936.

That Turing's name has not from the start been consistently associated with praise or blame for this technological revolution is due partly to his lack of effective publication in the 1940s. Science absorbs and overtakes individuals, especially in mathematics, and Turing swam in this anonymizing culture, never trying to make his name, although frustrated at not being taken seriously. In fact, his competitive spirit went instead into marathon running at near-Olympic level.

He omitted to write a monograph on "The theory and practice of computing" that would have stamped his name on the emergent post-war computer world. In 2000, the leading mathematical logician Martin Davis, whose work since 1949 had greatly developed Turing's theory of computability, published "The Universal Computer" which was in essence just what Turing could have written in 1948, explaining the origin of the universal machine of 1936, showing how it became the stored-program computer of 1945, and making it clear that John von Neumann must have learnt from Turing's 1936 work in formulating his better-known plan.

Turing's very last publication, a Science News article of 1954 on computability, demonstrates how ably he could have written such an analysis. But even there, on terrain that was incontestably his own discovery, he omitted to mention his own leading part.

Princeton University Press

Online search engines, which work with such astonishing speed and power, are algorithms, and so equivalent to Turing machines. They are also descendants of the particular algorithms, using sophisticated logic, statistics and parallel processing, that Turing expertly pioneered for Enigma code-breaking. These were search engines for the keys to the Reich.

But he asked for, and received, very little public credit for what has subsequently proved an all-conquering discovery: that all algorithms can be programmed systematically, and implemented on a universal machine. Instead, he nailed his colors to the mast of what he called "intelligent machinery," but which came to be called artificial intelligence (AI) after 1956. This far more ambitious and contentious research program has not developed as Turing hoped, at least as yet.

Turing would have relished the opportunity for electronic communication with like-minded people.

Why did Turing go so public on AI, and make so little of himself as an established maestro of algorithms and the founder of programming? Partly because AI was for him the really fundamental scientific question. The puzzle of mind and matter was the question that drove him most deeply. But to some extent he must have been a victim of his own suppressed success. The fact that he knew so much of the algorithms of the secret war, and that the war had made the vital link between logic and electronics, cramped his style and con- strained his communication.

Only after thirty years did the scale and depth of wartime cryptanalysis at Bletchley Park, England, begin to leak out, allowing a serious assessment of Turing's life to be attempted. This point coincided with the break-out of cryptology theory into an expanding computer science, with a reassessment of the World War Two in general, and with the impact of 1970s' sexual liberation.

The 1968 social revolution, which Turing anticipated, had to happen before his story could be liberated. (Even so, the change in UK vetting and military law came only in the 1990s, and a legal principle of equality was not established until 2000. "Don't ask don't tell" ended only in 2011, showing how homosexual issues have remained literally unspeakable in the US military.)

Turing's story shows the first elements of this liberating process in the Norway of 1952, since the men-only dances he heard about were probably organized by a fledgling Scandinavian gay organisation. In addition to gay-themed novels, Turing's friend and fellow mathematician Norman Routledge recalled in 1992 how Turing expected him to read André Gide in French.

One regret is that his letters to his mathematician colleague Lyn Newman did not survive. Their content can be guessed from what in 1957 she wrote to a friend: "Dear Alan, I remember his saying to me so simply & sadly, 'I just can't believe it's as nice to go to bed with a girl as with a boy' and all I could say was, 'I entirely agree with you – I also much prefer boys.'" This interchange, then confined to a discreet privileged circle, could now be a TV chat show joke, with a happy resonance of the repartee of his famous imitation game. But Turing's simple openness came decades too early.

It is not difficult to imagine the hostility and stigma of those days, for such hatred and fear is still, whether in Africa, the Middle East or the United States, a major cultural and political force. It is harder now to imagine a world where persecution was not just asserted but taken as an unquestionable axiom.

Benedict Cumberbatch is surrounded by, from left, Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Allen Leech as they depict Alan Turing's attempts to break Nazi codes during WWII. Jack English

Turing faced the impossible irony that his demand for honesty ran up against the two things, state security and homosexuality, which were the most fraught questions of the 1950s. It is not surprising that it proved impossible to contain them in a single brain.

Turing's death in June 1954 left a jagged edge in history, something no one (with the extraordinary exception of his mother) wanted to talk about. My fusion of these elements into a single narrative certainly encountered criticism in 1983.

But since then, his life and death have been as celebrated as those of any scientific figure. Hugh Whitemore's play Breaking the Code, based on my book and featuring leading performers, pushed at the envelope of public acceptability. It made Turing's life a popular story in 1986, reinforced by a television version in 1997.

It is hard to believe he would rejoice in an exception being made for himself.

By that time the Internet had transformed personal openness. In a curious way, Turing had anticipated this use of his technology, already hinted at in the risqué text-messaging of his imitation game. The love letters created by the Manchester computer, and his message about the Norwegian youth, rendered as a nerdy computer printout, suggest a Turing who would have relished the opportunity for electronic communication with like-minded people.

In 2009 the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made a statement of apology for Turing's trial and punishment in 1952–54, framed by a wider vision of how the values of post-war European civil society had been won with his secret help. This statement was enlisted through a popular web-based petition, something impossible in 1983, but already then being mooted as the sort of thing the "mighty micro" could bring about.

The pardon captured the public imagination and was received with elation as a fairy-story Christmas present. But its principle was less elevated it conceded the plea made in Turing's defense at his trial in 1952, that he was a national asset. It was an act of pulling rank which, in 1952, Hugh Alexander's advocacy had not been able to achieve, but sixty years later, dressed up with the formal magic of monarchy, was widely applauded.

The petitioners for the pardon explicitly said Turing was sui generis, and that a pardon would create no precedent to apply to anyone else. It was granted on that exceptional basis. So it left Turing's lover, Arnold Murray, who was charged in exactly the same way as Turing, unpardoned: no reference was even made to whether he was still alive (he was not).

Turing took great interest in the background and character of this vulnerable young man, writing a short story based on his breaching of class barriers. It is hard to believe that Turing would have been high-minded enough actually to object if the trial had been stopped on the grounds of his rank, and the whole thing hushed up. On the other hand, it is also hard to believe that he would rejoice in an exception being made for himself while so oppressive a law was enforced on thousands of others.


In the preface to the 2014 edition of the biography, Andrew Hodges describes how another witness has emerged to the importance of running in Turing's life, but also recounts a story that hints at the symbolism surrounding Turing's death.

In 2011, Alan Garner told a story that he alone knew. He had been Alan Turing's training partner; they had run perhaps a thousand miles together through Cheshire country lanes in 1951–52. Garner was seventeen in 1951, and a sixth-former at Manchester Grammar School, studying classics.

The meeting arose in that year, as fellow athletes spotting each other on the road. From the start, Garner felt himself treated as an equal, something he could appreciate and cope with because of this school's distinctive ambience. He was also just about to become a serious competitive young sprinter. Their disparate long- and short-distance strengths were compatible with an equal pace over a run of several miles.

Equality also was found in banter full of wordplay and scurrilous humour. It came as no surprise to Garner when Turing asked him if he thought intelligent machinery was possible. After running silently for ten minutes, along Mottram Road, Alderley Edge, near Wilmslow in Cheshire, he said no. Turing did not argue. "Why learn classical languages?" Turing asked, and Garner said, "You have to learn to use your brain in a different way": the kind of answer that Turing would have appreciated.

Being with his girlfriend, Garner pretended not to have noticed Turing's presence.

Their chat kept away from the personal: it was focused on sustaining the six or seven miles of running. But once, probably late in 1951, Turing mentioned the story of Snow White. "You too!" said Garner, amazed. For he connected immediately with a singular event from his childhood. It was his first cinema outing when five years old.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had terrified him with the image of the poisoned apple. Turing responded with immediate empathy. "He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death." Their shared trauma – as Garner saw it – remained a bond.

The training extended into 1952 and overlapped with the period of Turing's trial. Turing never spoke of what he was undergoing and somehow Garner only heard the news late in 1952, when he was warned by the police not to associate with Turing. Garner was very angry at this, and at what he learnt had happened, and he never had the least sense of having been approached in any predatory way.

And yet, inevitably, it ended sadly. Alan Garner painfully recalls seeing Turing for the last time in 1953, as a fellow passenger on the bus from Wilmslow to Manchester. Being with his girlfriend, Garner found it too difficult to say anything appropriate and so he pretended not to have noticed his presence.

This incident, so redolent of the fiction and film of final teenage years, was soon followed by Garner's departure to National Service, during which he heard of Turing's death. Alan Garner revealed nothing of this for sixty years.

Alan Turing would naturally have delighted to see a lad from a very ordinary Cheshire village background showing such curiosity and intellectual ambition. But it is as though he also saw something extra in Garner, sensing a writer of the future who would combine modernity and mythology. [Garner went on to become a successful writer of children's fantasy novels.]

The story of the apple is like a glimpse of the Jungian analysis he went in for after 1952, of which we know virtually nothing. It is also striking to know that when Turing saw Snow White at its Cambridge release in 1938, a five-year- old boy was reacting in parallel, and one day would share it.

The year 1938 was Turing's year of choice: he chose to return from America and chose active engagement with war rather than pure mathematics. He accepted secrecy and the death of innocence. That the apple had already figured in a suicide plan he had imagined must have made the film scene an intense (and as Garner saw it, traumatic) image.

His analyst, Franz Greenbaum, might have been the perfect confidant in working out such conflicts, but state secrecy would have made it impossible for Turing to convey the true seriousness of his situation. His total isolation in 1954 is virtually impossible to conceive of in today's world.


In the new Preface, Andrew Hodges reproduces a poignant letter that vividly portrays the shock of Turing's suicide. This first-hand account was written by his housekeeper, Mrs Clayton, to his mother on the night of Tuesday June 8 1954:

My dear Mrs Turing

You will by now have heard of the death of Mr Alan. It was such an awfull shock. I just didn't know what to do. So I flew across to Mrs Gibson's and she rang Police & they wouldn't let me touch or do a thing & I just couldn't remember your address. I had been away for the weekend and went up tonight as usual to get his meal. Saw his bedroom light on the lounge curtains not drawn back, milk on steps & paper in door. So I thought he'd gone out early & forgot to put his light off so I went & knocked at his bedroom door. Got no answer so walked in, Saw him in bed he must have died during the night. The police have been up here, again tonight for me to make a statement & I understand the inquest will be Thursday. Shall you or Mr [John] Turing be coming over[?] I feel so helpless & not able to do anything. The Webbs removed last Wed. & I don't know their new address yet. Mr & Mrs Gibson saw Mr Alan out walking Mon. evening he was perfectly all right then. The weekend before he'd had Mr Gandy over for the weekend & they seemed to have had a really good time. The Mr & Mrs Webb came to dinner Tues. & Mrs Webb had aftern[oon] tea with him Wed. the day she removed.

You do know you have my very deepest sympathy in your great loss & what I can do to help at this end you know I will continue to do so.

Yours respectfully, S. Clayton

Excerpted from Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book that Inspired the Film The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges. Preface ©2014 by Andrew Hodges. Published by Princeton University Press in the United States and Vintage Books in the United Kingdom. Reprinted by permission.

The Private Anguish of Alan Turing | Culture