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Turing Pardon Rejected As Bletchley Park Turns To Finding Colossus Sponsors

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Alan Turing’s pardon has been rejected by the government. Bletchley Park seeks sponsors for a virtual rebuild of the historic Colossus computer

The online e-petition seeking an official pardon for Alan Turing, has been rejected by the government.

Turing was one of a number of genius codebreakers stationed at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. There he was part of the team that helped crack the Enigma code.

Criminal Convinction

Besides being a formidable mathematician and cryptanalyst, Turing was also a highly influential computer scientist who laid the foundations of computer science by thinking up a theoretical computer called the Turing Machine, and also helped create the world’s first modern computer, the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine.

However, Turing was also homosexual, which was seen as a criminal offence at that time. In 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency with another man. As a result of this conviction, Turing was forced to choose between prison or chemical castration by taking female hormones. He chose the latter and, two years later at the age of 41 years old, Turing took his own life.

Last December, an online petition was launched to request a pardon for his conviction of ‘gross indecency’. It currently has 27,880 signatures.

This is not the first time an appeal on behalf of Turing has been raised. In 2009, a petition on the Number10.gov.uk Website was signed by thousands of people, which called for a posthumous government apology to Turing. The then prime minister Gordon Brown acknowledged the petition and released a statement apologising and describing the treatment of Turing as “appalling”.

But the man who was behind the original petition, refused to back the latest petition.

“In Turing’s case there’s really no argument that he simply broke the law,” wrote John Graham-Cumming, a British computer scientist, on a blog at that time. “There aren’t any circumstances that change that. The law itself was awful (hence my campaign), but it’s not clear to me that a pardon is appropriate. Secondly, even if a pardon is appropriate, a pardon for simply Turing would be unjust to the other gay men who suffered under the law.”

Government Rejection

This is the position the government has taken. According to The Guardian newspaper, the House of Lords’ Justice Minister Lord McNally used the precedent argument to reject the motion.

He is quoted by the Guardian as responding with the following statement when he was asked whether a pardon would be considered.

“The question of granting a posthumous pardon to Mr Turing was considered by the previous Government in 2009.”

“As a result of the previous campaign, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal posthumous apology to Mr Turing on behalf of the Government, describing his treatment as ‘horrifying’ and ‘utterly unfair’. Mr Brown said the country owed him a huge debt. This apology was also shown at the end of the Channel 4 documentary celebrating Mr Turing’s life and achievements which was broadcast on 21 November 2011.”

“A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known that his offence was against the law and that he would be prosecuted.”

“It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd-particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.”

Colossus Sponsorship

Meanwhile, Bletchley Park has also attracted attention as the home of the world’s first programmable computer, the Colossus, a reconstruction of which has been displayed there in The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC).

There once had been 10 Colossus machines, which had been build to speed up the decrypting process of intercepted transmissions between Hitler’s command and his armed forces but, following the war, eight of these machines were dismantled, with the remaining two transferred to the forerunner of GCHQ.

The rebuilding of the machine was started in the 1990s by Tony Sale who died last August.

“Colossus plays a huge part in the history of electronics and computing and we aim to create a gallery to inspire future generations of computer scientists and engineers,” said Phil Hayes, the new chief engineer of the Colossus rebuild, to the BBC.

TNMOC is hoping to raise £150,000 through sponsorships to finance the rebuild of Colossus, with each patron paying for a “virtual valve” in a digital reconstruction of the historic machine. A minimum donation of £10 will by a group of pixels on the reconstruction screen. Companies that acquire a larger screen area will be able to display a company logo. Prospective sponsors should go here.