Profiles in Engineering Badassery: Alan Turing

Ok, so for the record, Alan Turing wasn’t exactly an engineer. He was a mathematician first, which turned him towards cryptology and a very early form of computer science. However, he did wield the awesome power of pure mathematics to break down the usefulness of the Enigma Machine, and later developed the Turing Machine, a thought experiment that essentially resulted in the CPU powering whatever device with which you’re reading this. That’s way more than good enough for me.

It’s argued that the team working at Bletchley Park, the cryptanalysis compound for the British government during WW2, and their ability to consistently crack Engima-encrypted codes shaved at least two years off of the war. Turing was one of the key figures there: within two weeks of joining the team he’d developed a plan for an electro-mechanical device to do much of the decrypting work. This later ended up inspiring the world’s first digital, programmable computer, Colossus. He just keeps getting more badass!

Unfortunately, after the war, Turing’s incredible contributions to saving millions of lives were overlooked in light of the fact that he was gay. In 1952 he was convicted for indecency following police discovering that he’d had homosexual sex. He agreed to go through chemical castration in the hopes of continuing his work, but the conviction still resulted in the loss of his security clearance. In 1954, Turing committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. (It was rumored that Apple Computers and their logo was meant to be an homage to this, but when asked, Steve Jobs said “It’s not true, but boy do we wish it was.”)

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing and his family for his treatment at the time. A petition is moving forward presently to ask the government to issue a posthumous pardon. His efforts have been remembered in books, film, and statues, but perhaps more telling is the long-term changes to the world at large that he sparked.