The Bank of England began circulating its new £ 50 notes on Wednesday using World War II code breaker Alan Turing in what would have been the pioneering math genius’ 109th birthday.
Turing is often referred to as the “father of computer science and artificial intelligence” and was at the end of the war by King George VI. Even so, he died a disgraced “criminal” – simply because he was a gay man.
“I am delighted that Alan Turing can be seen on our new £ 50 banknote. He was a brilliant scientist whose thinking continues to shape our lives today, “Bank of England chief cashier Sarah John told NBC News. “However, his many contributions to society were still insufficient to spare him the appalling treatment to which he was subjected simply because of his homosexuality. By putting him on that new £ 50, we’re celebrating his life and accomplishments that we can all be very proud of. ”
Turing was born in London on June 23, 1912 and graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1934. At the beginning of World War II, he joined the British government’s war operation and designed a code-breaking machine called the “Bomb”. Bomb provided the Allied forces with vital military information, processing 89,000 encrypted messages a day at peak times.
At the end of the war, Turing was named Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an honor given by the royal family to a select few for their contribution to science, the arts, and public service.
In the following years, Turing continued to work as a computer scientist. His design for the Automatic Computing Engine, or ACE, would have been the first and most advanced computer for its time. But his colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory feared the technique was too complex and decided to build a much smaller pilot ACE instead. As a result, their rivals at Manchester University won the race, and the discouraged Turing had banded together as assistant director. Turing also wrote the first programming manual.
“What we really don’t see is how that moment and Turing’s vision changed the whole world. Before that, literally nobody in the world had imagined that a single machine could use innumerable abstract strings. Today we know them as programs, ”said David Leslie of the Alan Turing Institute.
But being Turing as a great computer scientist and war hero did not spare Turing from a “witch hunt” of gay and bisexual men in Britain that resulted in the incarceration of thousands of gays and suspected gays throughout the 1950s.
In January 1952, Turing was charged with indecency over his relationship with another man in Manchester. Although Turing was labeled a “national good” during the trial by character witness Hugh Alexander, head of cryptanalysis at government communications headquarters, he was persecuted.
In March of the same year, Turing pleaded guilty and, in order to avoid incarceration, had to consent to chemical castration using hormone therapy to suppress his libido.
His criminal record prohibits him from working for a state secret service. Disgraced and disenfranchised, he committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in his Manchester home on June 8, 1954. He was 41.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain more than a decade later on June 14, 1967.
Despite its tragic end, Turing’s legacy as a war hero and father of computer science has lived on, and the British government has sought to correct its past wrongs. In 2009, more than half a century after Turing’s death, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized on behalf of the government for Turing’s “totally unfair” treatment. In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a royal pardon.
Presenting it on a £ 50 banknote is another milestone. This is the first time a gay man has been featured on a UK banknote. It has been hailed by parts of the LGBTQ community as a symbol of the country facing its dark past of terrible persecution of gay men.
This visionary pioneer of computing and artificial intelligence, once criminalized and disgraced, is widely celebrated today. In Turing’s own words from 1949: “This is only a foretaste of what is to come and only the shadow of what is to be.”