Alan Turing Decoded

Prof: Alan Turing Decoded
Dermot Turing
The History Press  320pp  £20

Few lives provide a more appropriate subject for biographical decoding than the brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst and father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, yet few men were so wrongly judged by their countries. Dermot Turing is well placed to reassess his uncle. Although Alan was not emotionally close to his family, Dermot comes at some remove, having been born after his uncle’s tragic death. As a family member, however, and trustee of Bletchley Park, he has had access to many unpublished papers and photographs. What results is a cheerfully anecdotal account of a slightly grubby, surprisingly athletic, formidably clever and pleasingly humorous and humane man. 

Dermot Turing first takes issue with the image of his uncle as a solitary and slightly eccentric genius. It is the solitary part that rankles. Instead, a rather endearing and, if unconventional, not unpopular child appears. At school Alan Turing started an origami craze for ‘not just darts and paper boats’ but paper kettles, in which water could be boiled over a flame. By 11, he was designing fountain pens and typewriters and secretly doing algebra during dull divinity lessons. The adult man emerges seamlessly, still seeking out independent projects while enjoying the company of his peers, only now it is colleagues, rather than teachers, who curse him for his ‘smudgy copy’. He is still indisputably eccentric, happily cycling to work in his gas mask to ward off hay fever and coding notes to friends without considering how many hours they take to decipher.

Turing is best known for his work designing the mechanical nemesis to the Nazi’s Enigma coding machine during the Second World War. Reportedly only two mathematicians believed Enigma could be defeated. ‘Birch thought it could be broken because it had to be broken and Turing thought it could be broken because it would be so interesting to break it.’ Break it he famously did, helping to turn the tide of the war. But Turing’s interest in intelligence went much further than ciphers. In 1947 he produced a paper on ‘Intelligent Machinery’, in which he proposed engineering ‘a “brain” which is more or less without a body’. It is tempting to imagine that this brilliant intellectual, who pitched his own brain against a regime built upon biological prejudice and who later suffered so much as a result of Britain’s inability to tolerate human diversity, might have yearned for a more cerebral, less physical world. But Turing, a man of many passions, was not so binary in his thinking. He loved recondite puzzles, long-distance running, human decency and men.  

Unlike previous biographers, Dermot Turing neither ignores nor elevates the importance of his uncle’s sexuality. Joan Clarke is dealt with in less than three pages, though she gets more attention than any individual male romance. ‘The dominant passion in his life was his ideas’, Dermot Turing insists. ‘It is those for which he should be remembered.’ Yet this is not an academic book and should perhaps be read with a glass of wine at hand. The style is personable. There are some lists and overlong quotes, but not too much maths, and regular stylistic flourishes. Those hoping for new revelations about Alan Turing’s personal life or final confirmation of the circumstances of death will be disappointed. For anyone seeking a more nuanced picture of the human side of Turing, however, this book makes a useful and sometimes poignant contribution.

Clare Mulley is author of The Spy Who Loved: the Secrets and Lives of Britain’s First Female Special Agent of WWII (Pan, 2013). 

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