If the move to pardon Turing shows anything, however, it is that one of the most compelling figures in the rarefied world of mathematics has perhaps never been more popular.
Turing’s reputation proceeded him in academic circles, even after the scandal of his conviction and subsequent death at age 41. But it was only in the 1960s and the dawning of the information age in the 1970s that scholars began to truly grasp the importance of his earlier work.
His seminal 1936 paper “On Computable Numbers” outlined the theory of a “Universal Machine,” a device that some scholars now call the conceptual forerunner of program-based computers. In the 1940s, he outlined what was arguably the first realizable design for a modern computer. In 1950, he propagated an early notion of artificial intelligence in a paper that posed the question: “Can machines think?”
Yet Turing remained relatively obscure in the public eye until the late 1970s, when the first details emerged about his role in the top-secret “code breakers” operation at Bletchley Park — a sprawling estate that became a World War II museum here in England’s picturesque county of Buckinghamshire.
Teams of mathematicians, linguists and engineers first descended on the warrenlike complexes in 1939. As Hitler’s blitz began raining fire on British cities a year later, Turing and others worked round the clock to turn the tide of the war by cracking Nazi messages encoded by the infamous Enigma machines. Even among the great minds gathered at Bletchley Park for the war effort, scholars say, Turing stood out.
Turing had already distinguished himself as a leading mathematician — a brilliant, if socially awkward man who practiced his speeches on a teddy bear named Porgy and had a penchant for intellectual banter. Building on earlier work done by Polish experts and in collaboration with a team that included fellow mathematician Gordon Welchman, Turing and company delivered the war’s other big “bombe” — the bombe machine.
About the size of an upright queen-size bed, the bombe allowed for quick deciphering of Nazi messages, helping secure a key victory against German U-boats that were strangling supply lines in the Atlantic.
“As one of his colleagues once said, it was a very good thing that the government didn’t know that Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they found out, they would have sacked him and we would have lost,” said Lord John Sharkey, sponsor of the Turing pardon in Britain’s upper house.