Code-breaker whose heroic work should be celebrated

 

NET RESULTS:Alan Turing, whose brilliant device helped decipher Nazi codes, is the father of modern computer science, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

SEVENTY YEARS ago this week, a shy young mathematician named Alan Turing arrived at an old mansion called Bletchley Park, to take up a cryptanalytic position at this unlikely headquarters for the ultra-secret code-breaking efforts of the second World War.

Britain had just declared war on Germany, and Bletchley was designated “Station X”, the heart of what was to become a formidable, round-the-clock bid to crack Nazi message codes.

The Germans were using a diabolically complex electro-mechanical coding device, the Enigma Machine, which used a series of rotors and creative wiring to triple-scramble every message. Each rotor offered 25 or 26 options, so that altogether there were 10(114) variations for sending any message, making them seemingly uncrackable in a pre-computing era. Even worse, the German navy used Enigma settings that were even more complex than those used by other divisions such as the Luftwaffe.

Without occasional mistakes by the machines’ operators, combined with the lucky retrieval of machines by Allies that revealed the internal wiring, and the presence at Bletchley of Turing, the messages might have remained indecipherable.

Working in “Hut 8” among the scattering of low buildings added to Bletchley’s grounds, the 27-year-old was pivotal in cracking the codes. Alone, he set to work in 1939 on the problem of the naval code, which had defeated all others, and successfully figured out the system being used.

He also redesigned the “Bomba”, an analogue computing machine invented by the Poles for cracking certain limited settings of an Enigma message, to enable it to decipher any Enigma message if a tiny part of the real message (the “plaintext”) could be worked out by Bletchley’s huge teams of women codebreakers.

Turing’s “bombe” machine, forerunner of modern computers, ran non-stop as Station X strove to decrypt a daily clutter of messages. Historians now say the war was shortened by two years due to the ability to decode these communications.

Turing’s broader legacy is immense for, as his biographer Andrew Hodges notes: “The conjunction of Turing’s thoughts with the practicality of large-scale electronic machinery . . . came to have momentous consequences” – in other words, the dawn of the computing age. Turing, whose name will forever be linked to Bletchley and the monumental work done there, is rightly seen as one of the fathers of computing, and a deep thinker about human and machine thought processes and the possibilities for electronic intelligence (he designed what is now known as the “Turing Test” for measuring artificial intelligence).

However, despite the truly heroic status of this gentle thinker, Turing’s life ended in the 1950s by his own hand – he ate a cyanide-laced apple, and it was decreed a suicide by the coroner. He had been stripped of his security clearances and was no longer allowed to do his brilliant, cryptographical work, because he dared to love another man.

For this, he was arrested in 1952, charged and found guilty. At his trial he said he saw nothing wrong with his feelings for his partner. Rather than be sent to prison, he was subjected to experimental chemical castration.

Though he continued to work, he was despondent and bitter, and took his life two years later. Computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, author of the recently published Geek Atlas, feels it is time the British government symbolically apologised to Turing for a persecution that undoubtedly contributed significantly to his suicide. He has posted a petition at the 10 Downing Street website, which has garnered more than 12,000 signatures from British citizens and support from scientist Richard Dawkins and writer Ian McEwan, among many others. Non-citizens can sign a sister petition here: http://bit.ly/21z2hX.

A more enduring and appropriate way for the British government to make amends – and for the technology industry to show its appreciation for Turing’s and Bletchley’s legacy – would be to properly fund the struggling but brilliant museum at Bletchley Park and its fledgling computing museum. The timing is perfect: this weekend Bletchley holds its annual Enigma reunion for its surviving codebreaking veterans, now mostly in their 80s and 90s, many of them women. It is the 70th anniversary of Bletchley’s establishment, and the arrival of Turing. It will be a major celebration, including the largest gathering ever of Enigma machines and other cypher devices, a fly-past by a vintage Lancaster, second World War re-enactments and guest speaker spots. You can also visit Turing’s restored Hut 8 office. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/1AOwUM.

But here’s a call to the many technology companies in Ireland: please help Bletchley raise the matching funds it needs to be considered for UK lottery funds. And consider other creative ways of supporting and conserving this unique part of computing heritage. If you are interested, e-mail me or contact Kelsey Griffin at Bletchley Park.

Blog and podcasts: www.techno-culture.com

Twitter: twitter.com/klillington