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World War II code-breaker pardoned by Queen Elizabeth

Computer pioneer

Alan Turing, who has been honored with a statue at the University of Surrey, is remembered for his path-breaking thinking on artificial intelligence and the idea that a machine could be programmed to perform multiple tasks.

In 1936: At 24, he conceived of a “universal machine,” a computer that would be human-like. It led to the “Turing Test,” the gauge of machine intelligence.

World War II: He designed an electromechanical device known as the “bombe.” The machine at Britain's Bletchley Park could decode Nazi messages and is credited with shortening the war by two years.

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By The Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 5:42 p.m.

LONDON — Nearly 60 years after his death, Alan Turing, the British scientist whose code-breaking work helped the Allies beat Hitler and who is considered the father of artificial intelligence, received a royal pardon on Tuesday for the crime of having had sex with another man.

Turing was convicted in 1952 of “gross indecency,” the charge used against gay men in an age when homosexual relations were illegal in Britain. He underwent chemical castration and had his government security clearance confiscated, then took his own life in 1954 at 41, prematurely ending a distinguished career that pioneered the computer era.

In recent years, a campaign to have Turing's name cleared has built momentum, resulting in a government apology in 2009 and culminating with Queen Elizabeth II exercising her royal “prerogative of mercy.”

The decision was hailed by many as long-overdue redress for one of Britain's most brilliant scientists. “Dr. Turing deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science,” Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said. “A pardon from the queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

Prime Minister David Cameron lauded Turing's vital work in cracking the Nazis' ingenious “Enigma” code, which had stumped some of the Allies' best cryptographers. Deciphering the German military's secret communications shortened World War II and “saved countless lives,” Cameron said.

His posthumous pardon is highly unusual and possibly unique. Royal pardons normally are reserved for people who are innocent of the offenses they are accused of committing, and they usually are requested by family members or others close to the alleged offender. Neither is true in this case, a departure from protocol that reflects “the exceptional nature of Alan Turing's achievements,” the government said.

But that sits uneasily with some legal scholars. While it's fine to denounce past statutes, such as the one against homosexuality, as retrograde and unjust, critics say, Turing was convicted according to the law of the land at the time, and pardoning him alone could be seen as implying that some people are above the law by virtue of their fame, their accomplishments or their value to the state.

Peter Tatchell, Britain's most prominent gay-rights advocate, said that at least 50,000 men were convicted of gross indecency, and that as many as 15,000 of them are still alive, stuck with criminal records for being gay.

“They have never been offered a pardon and will never get one. Selective redress is a bad way to remedy a historic injustice,” Tatchell said. “An apology and pardon is due to the other 50,000-plus men who were also convicted of consenting, victimless homosexual relationships during the 20th century.”

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