British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) was one of the pivotal scientific figures of the 20th century, with an influence on daily life that today continues to grow around the world. In the 1930s, Turing did work fundamental to modern computers. During World War II, he led the team of code breakers at Bletchley Park, Britain’s topflight cryptography center, that cracked Germany’s Enigma naval code, a step that proved essential to the Allied victory.
Instead of receiving the thanks of a grateful and admiring nation, however, this mathematical genius and national hero was persecuted and prosecuted in the 1950s for his homosexuality. He took his own life at the age of 41. As “Codebreaker,” a new film about Turing’s life, makes clear, a country’s political atmosphere has a very strong impact on scientists’ lives and work.
The war effort desperately needed the skills and talents of Turing and the other brilliant eccentrics–who included scientists, engineers, linguistic experts, and even crossword puzzle champions–assembled at Bletchley Park. Behavior considered unconventional was tolerated in the closed world of the top-secret establishment. After the war, Turing continued his work in both computing and cryptography, at a successor organization to Bletchley Park, which also required top-level security clearance.
The intensifying Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, however, soon heightened concerns about national security and the danger of losing scientific secrets to the enemy. This increased society’s demand for conformity and the pressure on gay men, who were considered serious security risks because they were thought to be especially susceptible to blackmail by foreign spy agencies. Back then in Britain, homosexual acts were crimes punishable by prison. In 1952, a series of minor events escalated into Turing’s arrest and conviction on indecency charges. He lost his security clearance, and in lieu of a prison term, he was forced to undergo chemical castration.
The film, which will have its U.S. theatrical premier in Washington, D.C., on October 17 and in New York on October 25, is an affecting drama-documentary about Turing’s life and times rather than a detailed examination of his work. It has already appeared on British television and in Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, and a number of European countries, according to the American executive producer, Patrick Sammon, who spoke at a preview showing held in Washington, D.C., on October 4 and co-sponsored by the National Press Club and IEEE-USA. “Codebreaker” will also be seen in other U.S. cities and on cable television, says Sammon, who did not specify a schedule for showings.
Only decades after his death did Turing begin receiving the full recognition that his epoch-making contributions deserved, as the importance of computing exploded and the work at Bletchley Park, long bound up in official secrecy, was made public. In 2009 the British government offered an official apology for its treatment of Turing.