A new £ 50 note is released on June 23 with Alan Turing. UEA speaker Michael L Nash explains the importance of Turing’s work
June 23 marks Alan Mathison Turing’s birthday in 1912.
Turing was a mathematician, an extraordinary code breaker, and a pioneering computer genius. This is the day chosen for the issuance of the new £ 50 note, the last note to switch to polymer mode, rather than what my father called ‘folding the money’.
It’s designed by Debbie Marriott, who had worked there since January 2019, and said it gave her a lot of insight into Turing’s remarkable life. Turing’s 1951 photograph is included, along with his signature, from the Bletchley Park guestbook, where he did such important work.
Turing gained universal currency with the 2014 film of his life, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the film is largely faithful to the facts of Turing’s short and highly significant life.
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Born in Maida Vale in London, Turing came from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family which included a baronet, his father being an engineer in India. He showed signs early on of his latent genius, but also of his courage and personal will, for example cycling 60 miles from Southampton to Sherborne, so that he could attend Sherborne School, despite the general strike of 1926. .
Educated at King’s College, Cambridge and Princeton in the United States, he eventually became a math reader at the University of Manchester. His 1936 article, Calculable Numbers, heralded the beginnings of not only computers, but artificial intelligence as well. First came the idealized computer, The Turing Machine, then overseeing the construction of the ACE at the National Physics Laboratory.
But what must have caught the public imagination was only revealed in the 1970s, when due to the Official Secrets Act, what Turing had done in Bletchley Park was revealed to a stunned public.
Turing had broken the German code, known as the Enigma, and this had allowed the Allies to know the secrets of German naval intelligence, which was estimated, shortening World War II by two years and saving more than 14 million lives.
No wonder it has been said that what he did was the greatest contribution of all during the war. After the war, in an interview with The Times in 1949, when Turing returned to his work on computers, he said: “This is only a taste of what is to come, and only a shadow of what is going to be. “
Sadly, his private life cut it all short when in 1951 he was arrested and charged with homosexual offenses. He was found guilty and was given a choice of imprisonment or probation with chemical castration. This harsh sentence ended when he committed suicide, in a chimerical way, by eating from an apple impregnated with cyanide.
The Bletchley Park documents were not fully declassified until 2013, but an earlier public campaign had made Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologize for what had happened to him in 2009, and the Queen had granted a pardon posthumously in 2014, only the fourth royal pardon issued since 1945.
Not only that, but a 2017 law retroactively pardoned all those convicted of same-sex offenses under landmark legislation, especially the infamous Labouchere Amendment of 1885.
Turing was both a professional and a private pioneer.
One of the origins of the word ‘gay’ is that it was used by the US military in 1942 to mean ‘GAY’ Good As You.
Turing wasn’t just good like you, he was better than that.