Unless you’ve watched the movie: The Imitation Game you’re probably not familiar with Turing. He was a genius and could do many things. He was a college professor and taught advanced mathematics in his 20’s. He was by most accounts the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. But, the most important thing he became for the history of the world, is a cryptanalyst during WWII.
By some estimations, what Turing did for Britain and their allies is save the lives of approximately 14 million civilians and military personnel through shortening the war by and estimated two years. The reason we didn’t know about this extraordinary man until more recently is for two primary reasons.
One, is that Britain had what is called an “Official Secrets Act,” which prevents the disclosing of all top-secret projects. In the U.S., we typically disclose these types of operations 25 years after they are completed. This is only if the disclosure wouldn’t negatively impact the lives of those who participated in the operation nor impact any current operations. In his case, it was shocking that Britain was able to keep it a secret for so long.
Secondly, and very sadly, after the war Turing was arrested for being a homosexual. It was mandated by their courts to either send him to prison for 18 months or he could go through chemical castration. The thought of being cooped up in prison frightened him to the point where he was willing to take the medications. The medications ended up making him terribly sick to where he couldn’t do the things he liked to do intellectually. Sadly he couldn’t take it anymore and at the age of 41, Turing committed suicide via Cyanide. He could no longer deal with the chemicals he was taking and for being ostracized for his homosexuality. He was a war hero, but his country was treating him like a hardened criminal. This is why he’s a hero:
Germany developed encryption technology called Enigma, that they used to direct military operations on land and on sea. It was extremely effective and with this communication device they were able to move military divisions around to where they’d know when and where to attack. Their U-Boats would receive communications about when various supply ships were headed towards Britain and they’d sink them.
No one could figure out the code and millions of lives were being lost. Winston Churchill and top military personnel decided to create a top-secret program and bring in some of the most brilliant minds in Britain to see if they could crack the Enigma's system. The group they assembled kept failing mostly because it took too long to process the data before Germany would reset the machine each night. After midnight a whole new encryption began causing the team to have to start over again and again.
If you’ve watched Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, Turing was a bit like him. He wasn’t a team player and didn’t quite understand human emotions. His mind was, in so many words, way beyond other peoples’ and he didn’t want anyone to slow him down, so he worked alone.
While everyone went through their daily calculations in trying to break the code, Turing decided to build a machine that could compute millions of times faster than they were currently doing. The problem was that no one had really heard of a computer before and the costs was going to be outrageous; but he received the funding and went to work on it. Keep in mind that no one could help him build this massive computer because it had never existed before. Turing envisioned it and no one else could comprehend it.
The computer began working but it wasn’t providing any decoding from the encryption of the Enigma. Months went by and nothing happened even though the machine kept running. The military decided to cut off funding for Turing's project. He decided to take it all the way up to Churchill and got his approval to continue working on the machine.
Then one day Turing thought about something and that is the computer didn’t have any form of baseline for its calculations. It in so many words, didn’t have a clue what its job was; it didn’t know what it was working on. The humans working on the project knew what they were shooting for, but the computer didn’t. So, he fed it information where they did have success regarding a few past messages. Now the computer knew what was considered a problem and what type of solutions they were looking for. The computer took the new data that came in at midnight from Enigma signals and was able to crack the entire code. Can you imagine the excitement when the computer sent a printout of its decipher? They had their hands on where Germany was sending its military and submarines. When they changed their encryption at midnight, the computer immediately began working out the new codes and turned it into actionable data.
At this point, a problem presented itself that was unexpected to everyone but Turing, and it was upsetting. He told the military liaison to the top-secret project that they couldn’t just give the computer’s findings to the military when the computer decoded the encrypted messages. Needless to say, the room was in shock.
Turing explained to them if they began outsmarting the Germans again and again, they’d eventually figure out the Enigma had been cracked and Britain would no longer have insight into Germany’s strategies and tactics. The best way to use the computer was to pick and choose when to use the information knowing full well that some people on the short-term would die, but in the long run they could save more lives by choosing the best situations to use the computer’s insight yet not show their hand to Germany.
Turing and his team created statistical models to help decide when the data should be used. This to me is mind-blowing that the military would allow them to make these decisions. Their faith and respect of these individuals, especially, Turing, is amazing.
Very few people knew that Turing had decrypted the Enigma and decades later most still didn’t know that the use of it was intermittent, meaning some people could’ve definitely been saved but their lives were sacrificed for the greater good so that the Germans didn’t know they’d been hacked.
Turing was an amazing man who saved millions of lives but few people knew, Winston Churchill did. Having been ostracized for years it wasn’t until 2009 that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for "the appalling way he was treated". Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon in 2013. The Alan Turing law is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts. In July of 2019, the Bank of England announced that Turing would be depicted on the United Kingdom's new £50 note.
Over 50 years after his death, Turing received the hero status he deserves. And even though I didn’t include the other members of the team assigned to crack the Enigma, they’re heroes too. Could you imagine being one of them and going back to their previous jobs after the war and not being able to share their accomplishments? As far as anyone knew, they were factory workers for the military. The soldiers who made it home were treated to great fanfare, but the team who worked on the Enigma project could only watch the parades from the sidelines. I don’t have a clue how I would’ve handled this situation. They were astonishing people.