[ An earlier version of this article, ‘Code red for WWII code breaker’ appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of The Western Independent ]
Away from the fierce naval gun battles and front lines of History’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy calculating sums that would save millions of lives.
Australia is missing among World War II allied countries marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. The British code-breaker used mathematical logic to decipher the wartime German ‘Enigma’ device. Nazi generals used the random code machine, thought to be ‘unbreakable’, to send secret battle plans.
Historian Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine, says Turing’s contribution was central to the Allies’ success, saving potentially millions of lives during WWII.
“Turing devised the technique for automating the cracking of the naval Enigma code,” Dr Watson says.
“Historians generally agree the code breaking work shortened WWII by up to 2 years.”
These simulations also enabled Turing’s contribution to the first modern-day computer.
“The requirements for handling massive amounts of data quickly meant it became obvious the process needed to be mechanised,
“If the war hadn’t forced these requirements then I think the development of the computer, both in the US and the UK would have been much slower.”
University of Wollongong digital communications lecturer Teodor Mitew says Turing’s genius lay in simulating all the mathematical possibilities of the Enigma device. The intelligence proved decisive to the Allied forces in crucial naval battles.
“His contributions are incalculable, yet he remains a largely unknown figure in Australia,” he says.
The Turing Centenary Advisory Report lists WWII allies Canada, France, Britain, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and The United States among 13 nations to host commemorative events this year marking the centenary of Turing’s birth. No Australian events have been listed however.
“The reason Turing has not been commemorated in this country has been his relative obscurity and the secret nature of his contributions,” Dr Mitew says.
“Put simply, these don’t fit the heroic war narrative our general public has been fed.”
Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian reported on a petition signed by 21,000 British citizens urging their government to posthumously pardon Turing’s criminal record for homosexual activity recorded shortly after his war service. The petition was unsuccessful, but the centenary has brought renewed efforts to obtain the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a vote in parliament. As of this writing, 35,000 citizens have signed. Moves have also been underway to feature Turing on the £10 note.
Various biographical accounts detail Turing being forced to undertake ‘chemical castration’ for his homosexuality under threat of a prison sentence. In 1952, he was removed from his official position. He died two years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.
Dr Mitew says it is “just not enough” that Australians have forgotten about Turing’s life-saving work.
“You have this intellectual giant, with contributions ranging from philosophy through mathematics [to] computer science, and biology,” he says.
“Due to political and historical reasons he has been pushed into complete obscurity.”
Dr Watson says Australians, many of whose lives Turing helped save, should honour his services to the Allied war effort and urge the British government to pardon Turing’s criminal conviction.
“The law under which he was convicted was unjust and I think society would send a clear message by pardoning him – Thanks, you deserved to be treated better.” ♦
[ Photos courtesy Dr Ian Watson. Excerpts from Turing’s Computing and Machine Intelligence previously featured in imodernreview article ‘a new turing test’ ]