The news: Famed British code-breaker Alan Turing has finally – finally – received a royal pardon. On Tuesday, December 24 and almost 60 years after his death, Turing was granted a pardon from Queen Elizabeth II for his criminal conviction of homosexual activity.
Who is he? Turing was a major player in the Allied Powers’ fight against Germany in World War II. He singlehandedly gave the Allies quite a boost when he deciphered the supposedly “unbreakable” Enigma code used by Nazi Germany. The guy was smart and he put his brains to good use.
Turing’s Bombe, the device he developed to break the Nazi’s code, was an early ancestor of the computer.
“His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second World War where he was pivotal to breaking the ‘Enigma’ code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives,” British Justice Minister Chris Grayling said in the pardon statement.
So why did a war hero like Turing need a royal pardon? Because in 1952, homosexuality was still a crime in Britain (it remained so until 1967). Turing was convicted for having sex with a man – the punishment for which was chemical castration. It didn’t matter if he helped the British win WWII; in the eyes of the law Turing was a homosexual, a criminal.
The conviction of gross indecency and subsequent castration drove Turing to suicide two years later, at the age of 41.
OK, so what took so long to get Turing a pardon? Royal pardons in Britain are very rare: there have only been three other notable cases since 1945.
But there has been an active campaign for Turing, led by some of today’s most notable scientists, including Stephen Hawking. A petition to the British government for Turing’s pardon received over 37,000 signatures.
But still, considering all that Turing did for his country – not to mention the absurdity and archaic nature of criminalizing homosexuality – it’s a bit ridiculous it took this long. British Prime Minister David Cameron called Turing a “remarkable man” and the “father of modern computing.”
[Turing’s] life was overshadowed by the conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory … a pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man,” read the pardon statement.