Alan Turing: The Enigma

Imagine for a second that there exists a hero,
a man who has served his country in its darkest
hour, who has made great scientific breakthroughs,
who may have saved as many as 14 million lives.
How would you reward this man?
Would you give him riches, awards, accolades?
Or would you hound him from your institutions,
destroy his relationships, before finally
driving him to commit suicide?
In 1954, the British government made the latter
The hero’s name?
Alan Turing.
His crime?
Refusing to live in the closet.
A mathematical prodigy, Alan Turing escaped
a troubled childhood to become perhaps Britain’s
greatest mathematician.
The father of modern computing, he pioneered
concepts of artificial intelligence and cryptography,
and saved millions of lives as a codebreaker
in WWII.
He also dared to be openly gay at a time when
loving another man could see you not just
jailed but destroyed by the establishment.
Join us today as we journey through the inspiring
life and tragic death of the mathematician
who took on the Nazis… and won.
To Have Loved and Lost…
It’s said the first person we fall in love
with influences us for the rest of our lives.
Perhaps that’s never been more true than
in the case of Alan Turing.
When the teenage Turing met Christopher Morcom
in 1928, it was the start of a relationship
that would drive Turing to do his greatest
So it’s remarkable how close this meeting
came to never happening.
There are near infinite universes out there
where the father of computing never met the
muse who would inspire him.
The first branching of the multiverse came
in 1912, when Ethel Stoning discovered she
was pregnant with Julius Turing’s second
At the time, Julius Turing was a functionary
in the Indian Civil Service, and there was
no reason to believe the new baby would grow
up anywhere but amid the heat and humidity
of the Indian plains.
But this was 1912.
Serious unrest was starting to break out against
the British Raj, and Julius decided his child
would be safer growing up in Britain.
And so it was that, on June 23, 1912, Alan
Mathison Turing was born not in Andhra Pradesh,
but in London.
Still, India would powerfully affect young
Alan’s life.
Although Julius wanted his children raised
in Britain, his job required him and Ethel
to live in India.
So, in 1913, they went back, leaving Alan
and his brother John in the charge of Colonel
To compare Ward to the Drill Sargent in Full
Metal Jacket would be an understatement.
Ward was a true military man.
He liked boys who stood to attention, not
sissies like young Alan who preferred reading
to rugger.
As a result, Alan’s early years were spent
constantly being bellowed at, until Ethel
finally returned to England and decided Alan
would fare better at boarding school.
It’s here that we get to our second great
branch in the multiverse.
In 1925, aged 13, Alan arrived at the prestigious
Sherborne boarding school in Dorset.
By now, the boy was a veritable math prodigy.
Unfortunately, Sherborne was a school that
prided itself on Latin and Bible Studies,
stuff Alan sucked at.
He sucked so bad that the school actually
opted to expel him.
It was only after some serious begging from
Ethel that Alan was allowed to stay.
That decision would prove important when,
in 1928, Alan finally met Christopher.
Christopher Morcom was an attractive lad with
a cheeky grin in the year above at Sherborne.
He was also a serious math enthusiast.
The moment Alan first saw Christopher, it
was like time had stopped.
He took to following the older boy around,
always sitting next to him in class.
At first, his behavior seems to have amused
But, as the weeks passed, he and Alan began
spending time together, debating geometry
and conducting science experiments.
Before long, they were inseparable.
It wasn’t exactly a romance.
Alan would write in later letters that Christopher
was probably aware of his young friend’s
romantic feelings, but had no desire to act
on them.
Yep, it’s the classic story of young gay
man falls for his straight best friend.
But it didn’t matter.
Alan never became bitter about his unrequited
He was happy just being in the same room as
As 1928 became 1929, and then 1930, the bond
between Alan and Christopher only deepened.
Alan’s grades even improved, and the danger
of expulsion drifted away.
And then came February 7, 1930, and this idyllic
life was shattered into a million jagged pieces.
That day, the tuberculosis that had afflicted
Christopher since childhood went into overdrive.
He collapsed.
It’s said the moment he heard the news,
Alan had a premonition of his love’s death.
On February 13, 1930, Christopher Morcom died,
not yet aged 18.
In assembly, the headmaster gave a heartfelt
speech to mark his passing.
But for Alan, what use were mere words?
He’d lost the one person in the world who
mattered to him, the one beautiful thing in
his life.
From that day on, Alan Turing would never
be the same again.
The Nature of the Spirit
As 1930 first dawned on the rolling hills
of Dorset, Alan Turing had been an aimless
student and a committed Christian.
By the time that fateful year retreated over
the horizon, he was neither of those things.
Christopher’s death hit Turing like a haymaker
to the stomach.
He cut himself off from his religion, began
trying to scientifically prove the existence
of ghosts – anything to give him hope that
his one love hadn’t been erased from existence.
“I worshipped the ground he trod on,”
Turing wrote to Christopher’s mother.
It was no exaggeration.
For the rest of his life, Turing would always
remember the first boy he fell for.
But life goes on.
In 1931, Turing left Sherborne and enrolled
at Kings College, Cambridge, where he studied
math and dabbled in anti-war politics.
Yet even here, the ghost of Christopher was
never far away.
In 1932, Turing wrote Nature of the Spirit,
a hopeful essay that attempted to use the
brand new field of quantum mechanics to suggest
our spirits might live on in eternity.
Turing was clearly still in the denial stage
of tragedy.
But his flirtation with the otherworldly wouldn’t
go to waste.
The papers Turing studied during this period
would directly influence his later work.
The next few years passed in numbed heartbreak.
At Cambridge, Turing had his first sexual
encounters with other boys.
He earned a first in mathematics.
Aged 22, in 1935, he was even made a fellow.
Finally, that same year, the broken young
man discovered a reason to keep on living.
In 1935, Turing began working on a famous
math problem, using some of the ideas he’d
cultivated while researching Nature of the
One year later, in 1936, he finished his masterpiece
On Computable Numbers, with an Application
to the Entscheidungsproblem.
Don’t let the name put you off.
You’re still living with the insights of
this paper today.
The actual point of Turing’s paper is beyond
our scope.
But part of it revolved around a thought experiment
using something called a “Turing Machine.”
To create this thought experiment, Turing
proved how you could take the then-human process
of computing numbers, and create a machine
capable of doing the same.
That’s right: as a byproduct of solving
a math problem, Turing invented the basis
for modern digital computers.
This was a truly dazzling leap of mathematical
logic, a real once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
It was also thought to be hopelessly hypothetical,
something that was theoretically sound, but
nothing that any modern human could ever hope
to build.
Nonetheless, Turing moved from Cambridge to
Princeton, New Jersey in September, 1936,
to keep working on his concept.
While he was in the USA, he happened to catch
an animated film at the cinema.
Friends later said the mathematician was completely
bowled over by Disney’s Snow White, particularly
the scene where the Wicked Queen makes an
apple deadly by dipping it in a cauldron while
whispering “Dip the apple in the brew.
Let the Sleeping Death seep through.”
That, my friends, is what we call foreshadowing.
In 1938, Turing finally returned to the UK,
where he picked up a job with GCCS, the pre-WWII
British signals interception and code cracking
He was originally only going to stay there
a year.
In fact, in summer, 1939 Turing was offered
a teaching job at a University.
But, as you’ll already know, summer, 1939
was when the fate of Europe changed forever.
And Turing was now only weeks away from his
meeting with destiny.
The Enigma
It’s time for us to wind the clock back
a little bit on our story, all the way to
(NOTE TO EDITORS: Some rewind footage might
be cool here?)
OK, so, 1918.
At this point, young Alan Turing is still
dealing with parents who vanish to India at
the drop of a hat, and has never even heard
of Sherborne or Christopher Morcom.
But it’s not Alan Turing we’ve time traveled
here to take a look at.
It’s an anonymous-looking German man named
Arthur Scherbius.
In February, 1918, as the First World War
still raged, Scherbius had quietly filed a
patent for a new cipher machine.
Looking like a typewriter, the machine randomly
scrambled messages as you input them, producing
gibberish that only someone with their own
copy of both the machine and the cipher key
could possibly decode.
Scherbius named his machine the Enigma.
In two short decades, it would be infamous.
Scherbius originally wanted his Enigma on
the commercial market, but it wasn’t long
before the military came calling.
In 1926, while Turing was close to getting
his ass expelled from Sherborne, the German
Weimar army purchased the Enigma plans and
started developing their own, even harder
to crack version.
This was worrying to Germany’s neighbors,
for obvious reasons.
In 1930, the year Christopher died, Polish
intelligence began secretly trying to collect
information on the new cipher machine.
In 1933, they got their break.
A drunk playboy in the German Cipher Office
named Hans Thilo Schmidt sold information
on Enigma to the French secret service.
They passed it onto the Poles and, under the
direction of mathematician Marian Rejwski,
Polish intelligence was able to construct
its own Enigma device: the Bomba.
The Bomba wasn’t perfect.
It could decipher a lot of Enigma traffic,
but it relied on the Germans not updating
their methods.
When 1938 ended with Hitler annexing Austria
and the Czech Sudetenland, the Poles began
to worry that maybe they needed to show some
other nations their stolen device.
In summer, 1939, Polish intelligence finally
passed on replica Enigmas to both France and
It was a decision they made just in time.
On September 1, 1939, Panzer tanks rolled
into Poland.
By the time a month had passed, the entire
Polish state had been conquered by Germany
and Russia, and Britain and France had declared
Back in our main narrative, Alan Turing responded
to the outbreak of war by reporting to Bletchley
Park, the hub of all British codebreaking
There, already waiting for the young math
whizz, was the Poles’ last gift before they
were conquered: the replica Enigma Turing
would use to save millions.
Cracking the Code
At this point you
might be feeling a little confused.
If Bletchley Park already had a replica Enigma
machine, why did they need Turing?
The problem was that Enigma’s ciphers were
constantly changing.
The Polish machine could intercept its traffic,
but without that day’s cipher, it was semi-useless.
What Bletchley Park needed was a device that
could crack the Enigma code no matter the
cipher, and do it fast.
This is where Turing’s strange genius came
Now, you may have seen the Benedict Cumberbatch
film about Turing’s life, The Imitation
Game, and have a vision of Alan Turing as
a borderline Asperger’s loner obsessed with
math at the expense of all else.
But the real Turing wasn’t like that.
Well, maybe a little.
It’s certainly true he used to chain his
mug to the radiator so no-one else could drink
out of it, and would wear a gasmask in summer
to keep his hay fever at bay.
But he was also a fan of socializing who liked
to go out drinking and dancing with his colleagues.
So, while Turing certainly was a spooky math
genius while at Bletchley park, please don’t
picture him as a 1940’s Sheldon Cooper.
The early work on Enigma was heavy going.
Although Turing helped build a machine known
as the Bombe, with an “e”, to help decipher
intercepted messages, many of them only came
through as gibberish, or would turn out to
be nursery rhymes the Germans had sent as
As 1940 got underway, Turing was reassigned
to Hut 8, where he led a team tasked with
decoding German Naval transmissions.
This was important for two reasons.
The first was that, as an island, Britain
had to import its food to survive.
Great when you’ve got a friendly continent
on your doorstep, less great when German U-Boats
are sinking all maritime traffic to the UK.
The second important reason is that it was
in Hut 8 that Turing first met Joan Clarke.
If Christopher was the great love of Turing’s
life, Joan was the great friendship.
A mathematical genius, Joan had volunteered
her talents at Bletchley Park, only to be
told women can’t do math and she would have
to take a job as a secretary.
Within days, though, it had become clear even
to the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals running
the place that Joan’s brain was the sort
of brain they were desperately looking for,
and she was promoted to Hut 8.
But, as this was the 1940s, Joan was still
paid a fraction of what her male colleagues
Still, she and Turing really hit it off.
They went to the cinema together, went out
As bombs rained down on southern England,
the two mathematicians’ friendship began
to blossom, until, in early 1941, Turing did
something unexpected.
He proposed to Joan.
Since you’ve watched this far and heard
all about Christopher, you’re probably wondering
why a gay man like Turing might propose to
a straight woman like Joan.
Joan kind of wondered it, too.
She knew Turing was gay, but she still said
It took a disastrous “romantic” vacation
for them to face reality and call the whole
thing off.
Still, Joan and Turing remained firm friends.
Better still, they remained excellent coworkers
in Hut 8.
And Hut 8 in 1941 was the nerve center for
the British fightback against Hitler.
That summer, Turing and his colleagues developed
a technique known as Banburismus which broke
the Naval Enigma codes wide open.
Suddenly, the British knew exactly where the
U-Boats were.
Ships could be re-routed.
Supply lines kept open.
Lives saved.
Looking back, it’s difficult to picture
just how close Britain came to starvation
in 1941.
We see the course of WWII today like a narrative
that can’t be changed, with plucky Britain
standing alone, always destined to triumph.
But, just as there are other universes where
Turing never met Christopher, there are universes
where Hut 8 never managed to crack those Naval
codes, and Britain starved in a brutal siege.
That fall, 1941, buoyed by their success,
the team at Hut 8 wrote to Winston Churchill,
asking for more funds.
They only asked for a little, thinking the
great man could have never possibly heard
of their small team doing its own thing.
So imagine their surprise when Churchill wrote
back on October 21, saying Hut 8 would now
have access to any amount of resources they
needed with utmost urgency.
Even the Prime Minister knew Turing and his
team were the ones who were going to save
Days of Victory
By early 1942, Bletchley Park analysts were
decoding, on average, one German message every
two minutes, or around 84,000 a month.
Yet, even as they saved millions of lives
and helped decisively turn the war, the team
were forbidden from telling anyone about their
As a result, many suspected the Hut 8 team
of refusing to help the war effort.
Turing’s landlady actually accused him of
malingering and called his refusal to enlist
a disgrace!
Among people in the know, though, Turing’s
reputation was soaring.
In December, 1942, he was cleared for travel
to the USA and given a top secret security
clearance to help American codebreakers.
But, by March 1943, he’d been recalled to
Bletchley Park as just too invaluable to be
away in America.
As 1943 became 1944, the tide of the war began
to turn.
In summer, 1944, D-Day dislodged the Germans
from their once unassailable position in France.
What followed was a slow-motion collapse of
the Third Reich that killed more people than
perhaps any other war in history.
With his work wrapping up, Turing began making
plans for his post-war career.
He decided he might build a “universal computer”.
Around this time, he also seems to have decided
to start living mostly out of the closet.
Turing was a hero now, a man whose work had
saved Britain from starvation.
Who could possibly object to a war hero who
just happened to love other men?
Finally, in August 1945, nearly three months
after the collapse of Nazi Germany, Japan
formally surrendered to the Allies.
The Second World War was over.
For Turing, this meant an OBE, one of Britain’s
highest honors.
It also meant being told to never, ever reveal
what he’d done at Bletchley Park.
Not that Turing cared.
He was a hot property now, a genius everyone
was clamoring for.
In 1946, the National Physical Laboratory
commissioned him to build the first modern
computer: the ACE.
Had it been finished, it would have been the
most powerful early computer by far.
Sadly, though, the NPL balked at the cost
and decided to build a smaller version known
as the Pilot ACE.
While the Pilot ACE was a milestone in computing,
it was overshadowed by the Royal Society Computing
Machine Laboratory at Manchester’s own effort:
the first working electronic stored digital
In 1948, Turing quit the NPL and moved to
Manchester to join them.
It was around this time that Julius Turing
finally died.
Turing’s father had quit the Indian Civil
Service many years before, but had mostly
lived abroad for tax reasons.
When he died, it was discovered he’d rewritten
his will to leave far more money to Turing
than to his brother John.
Like the gentleman he was, Turing disregarded
his father’s wishes, and the two brothers
shared their inheritance equally.
The 1950s dawned on a flurry of activity for
Alan Turing.
In 1948, the mathematician nearly competed
at the London Olympics, making the shortlist
for the marathon event.
In 1950, he created the famous Turing Test,
for determining if a machine has human-level
Finally, in 1951, he began working on the
creation of artificial life, one of the very
first people to do so.
All in all, things were going pretty well
for Turing now.
He was respected in his profession, mildly
famous as a mathematician, and living as close
to openly gay as was possible in the 1950s.
You no doubt recall that we started this video
by describing Turing’s life as tragic.
Well, buckle up, because it’s time for this
innocent man to be brutally destroyed.
“A Crime was Committed…”
In the weeks before Christmas, 1951, Alan
Turing was out shopping in Manchester when
he happened to lock eyes with Arnold Murray.
A young man of around 19, Murray was a good
looking, working class lad.
That same day, Turing took him to lunch and
charmed him.
A week later, Murray stayed the night at Turing’s
Soon, the pair were seeing each other regularly.
It was during one of these romantic weekends
that Murray started complaining he was always
short of cash.
Turing offered the boy some money, but Murray
The next morning, Turing discovered money
missing from his wallet.
Although he confronted Murray, the boy claimed
he was innocent, and the two reconciled.
And that was the pattern for the next few
weeks, Turing’s money disappearing, and
Murray refusing to admit his guilt.
It’s likely the well-paid Turing could have
lived with this odd arrangement, were it not
for what happened next.
On January 23, 1952, Turing returned home
to find his house had been burgled.
Deciding Murray had gone too far this time,
he called the police.
A week or so later, on February 2, 1952, Murray
unexpectedly turned up on Turing’s doorstep,
screaming that he was innocent.
He claimed a friend of his named “Harry”
had been the burglar, and that he’d targeted
Turing after Murray admitted the pair were
in a gay relationship.
Perhaps wanting to believe his lover, Turing
reported this new information to the police.
Not long after, cops arrived at Turing’s
Turing asked if this was about Harry.
It was, but not in the way he thought.
Unknown to Turing, the police had already
arrested Harry.
When Harry told them Turing was in a sexual
relationship with Murray, the police decided
Harry wasn’t the real criminal here.
The real criminal was Alan Turing.
That same day, Turing was arrested on a charge
of “gross indecency” for having sex with
another man.
Murray was arrested alongside him.
In late February, 1952, the pair attended
a preliminary hearing together.
Turing was bailed.
Murray went to jail.
As a war hero used to moving in academic circles,
it’s likely Turing never realized anyone
would care that he was gay.
But the law said otherwise.
In the 1950s, it was routine for police to
spy on and entrap gay men.
You could have saved Britain from starvation
in WWII, you could have helped defeat the
Nazis but, if you weren’t 100% straight,
then you were worse than a common burglar.
In March, 1952, Turing pled guilty to one
count of gross indecency.
The court originally planned to jail him,
but his lawyers convincingly argued that Turing’s
work was of national importance.
In the end, Turing was offered a choice.
One year in prison, or chemical castration.
He chose the chemical castration.
A course of female hormones released into
his body via an implant in the thigh, chemical
castration was designed to destroy your libido
and leave you impotent.
It also had horrific side effects.
An increased risk of cancer was one.
Extreme depression another.
When the news broke of Turing’s conviction,
he had his security clearance revoked.
His clearance for traveling abroad likewise
went in the trash.
The years of Turing the genius were over.
In the eyes of the British establishment,
he was now nothing but a monster.
“Let the Sleeping Death seep through.”
It was a cold, wet Monday morning when Alan
Turing’s housekeeper let herself into his
home on June 8, 1954.
It was now over two years since the mathematician’s
trial and conviction for homosexuality, and
Turing’s life was in tatters.
Turing’s public outing had caused a rift
with his family.
Turing thought his brother John was trying
to hide the fact he had a homosexual sibling;
and his mother’s reaction to Turing’s
sexuality had been cold and dismissive.
At the same time, the course of hormone treatment
had wreaked havoc on his brain and body.
While under treatment, Turing had had a small
number of sex dreams that convinced him he
was turning straight.
He wrote to a friend:
“I have had a dream indicating rather clearly
that I am on the way to being hetero, though
I don’t accept it with much enthusiasm.”
Still, by 1954, the worst was generally thought
to be behind him.
In April, 1953, the implant had been removed
from Turing’s thigh, ending his hormone
A month later, he’d picked up a new job
at the cutting edge of computing.
There had even been a sort of reconciliation
with his mother.
While their relationship never fully recovered,
it had come back from the lows of the trial.
As the housekeeper crept through the house
that rainy morning in 1954, she had no reason
to suspect that today would be in any way
The only sign she might have noticed was the
faint whiff of bitter almonds on the air.
Upstairs, the door to Turing’s lab was open.
He’d had it installed some years before,
and spent his spare time experimenting with
different chemicals.
But the housekeeper hardly noticed.
She was too busy staring at what lay on the
His eyes closed, Alan Turing lay dead on the
bedsheets, a half-eaten apple beside him.
The coroner’s report would later claim that
he had laced the apple with cyanide and bitten
into it, committing suicide in a ghoulish
homage to Snow White.
Today, it’s generally thought to be an unresolved
question whether Turing killed himself, or
accidentally poisoned the apple with cyanide
gas while working in his lab.
However, a recent exhibition at London’s
prestigious Science Museum published the original
coroner’s report for the first time in full.
It noted that there was so much cyanide in
Turing’s stomach that accidental ingestion
was effectively impossible.
The apple, the coroner reasoned, was a last
A final treat to take away the bitter almond
taste of cyanide.
On June 12, 1954, Alan Turing was cremated
at Woking cemetery.
Despite his heroic wartime record, despite
his pioneering scientific work, the press
barely marked his passing.
He was just another dead pervert, what did
anyone care?
Thirteen years after Alan Turing died, in
1967, the British government finally decriminalized
homosexuality in England and Wales.
42 years later, in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon
Brown issued a formal apology to him.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, 2013, the Queen
posthumously pardoned Alan Turing.
This led to the creation of Turing’s Law,
which came into effect on January 31, 2017,
and posthumously pardoned the thousands of
gay and bisexual men convicted for their sexual
orientation in Britain.
It was a hard fight.
A cadre of Conservative MPs tried to filibuster
the bill, falsely claiming it would pardon
convicted pedophiles.
Even in the 21st century, the prejudice which
destroyed Alan Turing hasn’t completely
Today, it’s estimated that Turing’s work
on Enigma may have shortened the war by two
years, saving millions of lives in the process.
His work on computing, artificial intelligence,
artificial life, and many other fields is
considered to have been pioneering.
Without this one, remarkable man who met such
a tragic end, you and I would be living in
a very


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