Legendary computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing was a complex figure. These newly discovered letters add even more depth to what we know about him.
Wrapped in plain paper, lying inconspicuously at the back of an old filing cabinet somewhere in the University of Manchester, are 148 never-before seen documents and letters from Turing’s personal and professional life.
“When I first found it I initially thought, ‘that can’t be what I think it is’, but a quick inspection showed it was,” says computer engineer Jim Miles from the university’s School of Computer Science.
“I was astonished such a thing had remained hidden out of sight for so long. No one who now works in the School or at the university knew they even existed.”
Few people can claim to have offered as much to the world as Alan Turing. Already a respected scientist, he rose to international fame when he cracked the Enigma Code Nazi Germany leaders used to command their armies — “because no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself”.
Despite living before computers really became a thing, Turing greatly contributed to computer science, and we are just now proving some of his theories. But for all his contributions, he suffered an unfair and tragic fate. Turing was homosexual, something which he confessed in an unrelated police investigation (someone had robbed his house). Homosexual acts were criminal offenses in the United Kingdom at that time and he was sentenced to hormonal treatment which, among other side effects, made him grow breasts. He was also eliminated from any relevant research and ultimately committed suicide.
Naturally, Turing’s life is of great interest, and this gives us a rare insight into how he felt about some things. For instance, his response to a conference invitation to the US in April 1953 is simply, “I would not like the journey, and I detest America”.
Another interesting letter conversation was between Turing and one of his old war-era collaborators from 1952. The mathematician was being asked for a photo portrait of himself for a history Bletchley Park that was being compiled by the American cryptographer William Friedman. In his characteristic style, Turing agreed to send a picture for the “American rogues gallery”.
But more of his letters focus on his pioneering, groundbreaking research in AI, computing, and mathematics. For instance, one interesting document from the collection is a handwritten draft for a BBC radio programme on artificial intelligence, titled “Can machines think?” from July 1951.
We can’t make up for the injustice that Turing was subjected to, but the very least we can do is respect and cherish his memory. This might add a whole new dimension to the man’s legacy, James says.
“The letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turing’s work at Manchester, but they do add an extra dimension to our understanding of the man himself and his research. As there is so little actual archive on this period of his life, this is a very important find in that context. There really is nothing else like it.”