The Bank of England has unveiled the design for its new £50 note featuring mathematician Alan Turing, who broke Nazi Germany’s military codes in World War II and was an early pioneer in computer science. Despite these accomplishments, he became a pariah in his own country after being arrested for “gross indecency” under the laws that made homosexuality a criminal offense.
What Happened: Turing received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Cambridge and a Ph.D. from Princeton. During World War II, he was employed in Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, where he developed techniques for deciphering intercepted coded messages that enabled Allied forces to successfully plan in their battles against the Nazis.
After the war, he designed the Automatic Computing Engine and helped develop the Manchester computers, forerunners of the modern stored-program computer.
In January 1952, Turing reported a burglary at his home to the police. During the investigation, Turing acknowledged that he knew the burglar and they had been lovers. Homosexual acts were against the law in England at the time and he was arrested and convicted. He was given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration, and he chose the latter. The conviction ended his career with the government and he was barred from entering the U.S. On June 8, 1954, he was found dead in his home from cyanide poisoning, with suicide determined as the cause of death.
Why It Matters: Due to the classified nature of his wartime work, Turing was unknown to the general public at the time of his death; the law criminalizing homosexual acts was abolished in 1967. Over the years, as the public learned of his work and the circumstances leading to his death, a movement arose to reclaim his legacy. Queen Elizabeth II issued a posthumous pardon for Turing in 2013 and a 2017 law named in his honor officially pardoned all men who were convicted under the old law.
“Alan Turing was a gay man, whose transformational work in the fields of computer science, codebreaking, and developmental biology was still not enough to spare him the appalling treatment to which he was subjected,” said Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey. “By placing him on this new £50 banknote, we celebrate him for his achievements, and the values he symbolizes, for which we can all be very proud.”
(Photo courtesy Bank of England.)
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