Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and a computing pioneer. His war-time code-breaking achievements and visionary ideas about machine intelligence made him one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Yet despite being recognised for his achievements during his lifetime, Turing, like thousands of other men, was criminally convicted under anti-gay laws of the time for having a relationship with a man.
The Science and Industry Museum has recently acquired a collection of material from the campaign for Alan Turing’s pardon, which was granted in 2013. Spearheaded in Manchester by Liberal Democrat politician John Leech and backed by numerous influential scientists and politicians including Professor Stephen Hawking, the campaign fought for the overturning of Turing’s gross indecency conviction and subsequently, pardons for thousands of other men convicted under the same discriminatory British laws.
It was in 1952, four years after he moved to Manchester to become Deputy Director of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Manchester when Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency, following his arrest for having a sexual relationship with a man. Stripped of his government security clearance, Turing’s work with GCHQ at Bletchley Park, which had proved vital during the Second World War, came to an end.
Turing was offered a choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of hormone treatment— chemical castration. To avoid prison, he chose the latter. Two years later, on 7 June 1954, shortly before his 42nd birthday, Turing ingested a large amount of cyanide solution at his home in Wilmslow near Manchester and was found dead the next day. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, although the full circumstances of Turing’s death remain unclear.
Thousands of people joined the campaign for Alan Turing’s pardon, which gathered pace in 2012, signing online petitions and marching with placards during Pride parades to popularise the cause. A number of leading scientific figures signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling for the government to ‘formally forgive this British hero’.
Politicians including John Leech and Lord Sharkey petitioned the government in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, tabling multiple Private Members’ Bills on the issue.
In 2013, after years of campaigning, Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon for his gross indecency conviction. The government acknowledged the discriminatory and unjust treatment he received under the laws of the time. After Turing’s pardon, John Leech and other campaigners called for the action to be extended. Three years later, the government introduced ‘Turing’s Law’, which pardoned thousands of other men convicted under historical anti-gay laws in Britain.
We are very pleased to have added material from the campaign for Alan Turing’s pardon to the Science Museum Group’s permanent collection. It joins objects relating to some of Turing’s most significant achievements in mathematics and computing, including the ‘Pilot ACE’ and archive material and components from the Ferranti Mark 1.
John Leech, who was instrumental in the pardon campaign and supported the museum with this acquisition, told us:
“When our campaign to pardon Turing, and the 75,000 other men and women convicted of homosexuality, began over a decade ago, I could never have imagined that I would see our campaign materials in a museum. It really does feel like the final piece in the puzzle of what has been an exhausting and emotional 10 years. It is a fitting tribute to a man whose work undoubtedly changed the course of history.
“I hope that by adding our items to the museum’s collections, it will serve as a stark and frankly painful reminder of what we lost in Turing, and what we risk when we allow that kind of hateful ideology to win.
“I’m grateful to the museum for choosing to recognise Turing, our campaign and I’m overwhelmed that this is finally coming to a positive end. I’d also like to thank everyone across Parliament, Manchester, all my colleagues and friends who joined our fight—I know that this too will be a deeply profound and emotional day for you.”
This collection of material will enable the museum to tell a more complete story about Turing’s life and the discrimination he faced, and show how the legacy of his life—and suffering—stretches beyond his achievements in mathematics and computing. Material from the collection will go on display in a future gallery at the Science and Industry Museum. You can explore it now on Collections Online.