Turing a hero and a reminder of UK’s past sins

Turing a hero and a reminder of UK’s past sins

Turing’s visage is set to adorn the £50 note in the UK. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Bank of England issued some welcome news last week, when it announced that Alan Turing would adorn the new £50 note. Turing was an exceptional mid-20th century mathematician who left a huge mark on his country and the world in more ways than one. This choice represents both the continuation of a recent British tradition of recognizing the exceptional acts of the people of the country, as well as a symbol of contrition for the wrongs done to Turing more than 60 years ago.

During the Second World War, Turing was one of the mathematicians vital to deciphering Nazi codes, particularly those relayed via the famous Enigma machine. Turing was a top codebreaker and his work was instrumental in providing the advantage of information to the Allied powers during the war. Turing and his colleagues took the cloak off of Nazi communications.

Turing was also one of the most influential innovators contributing to the creation of the computer. He helped establish the concept of algorithms in machines. Before the 20th century, it was common for mathematicians and physicists to use steps to solve problems or make calculations. However, the algorithm creates a template for calculating in a step-by-step process. This is the basis of machine computing. The Turing machine was a description of a device that could do arbitrary computations via algorithms. He designed it as a graduate student in 1936.

Though he had a brilliant mind and had already contributed so much to his country and humanity, the government prosecuted and convicted Turing of gross indecency in 1952. He had been caught in a relationship with a man and homosexuality was still illegal in England at the time. He was chemically castrated, an utterly cruel punishment. Two years after his conviction, following the state persecution and state-sanctioned physical abuse, Turing bit into an apple laced with cyanide and died.

When the people of the UK look at their money, they receive a history lesson and a shot of pride in their country.

Ellen R. Wald

Now Turing’s visage is set to adorn the £50 note. Typically, where monarchies exist, the sovereign and other royals are the only people to appear on the currency. The UK, however, has long been more enlightened about this. Other consequential British men and women have appeared on their money, including scientists, writers, statesmen and social advocates. This is a wise decision because it demonstrates that the country is not just the state. The country consists of the people.

“L’etat, c’est moi.” This is a famous, and likely apocryphal, quote from the exceedingly powerful French king Louis XIV, who reigned from Versailles in the 17th and 18th centuries. The translation is, “the state is I,” meaning that Louis XIV was the state. There was no distinction between the sovereign and the state. The concept was pivotal to the idea of centralized total control, and it was also demeaning to the people who actually created the wealth and success of France at the dawn of the Enlightenment.

Today, the British do have Queen Elizabeth II on currency. However, she is not the only person who has been carried in the people’s wallets during her time on the throne. William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, Adam Smith and many other British heroes have appeared on their bank notes. When the people of the UK look at their money, they receive a history lesson, a shot of pride in their country and a reminder of the limitless possibilities of their creativity and compassion. No matter how much the British might admire their queen, the country is a product of the British people.

Yet, the British made mistakes, as all societies have and continue to do. This honor for Turing is an admission of one such mistake. More than five years ago, the Queen granted Turing a posthumous pardon but, when the people of the UK see Turing on a bank note, they might remember both the man’s contributions and the country’s sins. This is important. Britain has come to view homosexuality differently from how it did in the past, and there is no denying that what was done to Turing was cruel and inhumane. It is crucial that the descendants of that era know and remember those mistakes so they do not repeat them.

In the US, where dead presidents and a founding father have been printed on paper currency, there has been a movement over the last few years to replace the image of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a portrait of Harriet Tubman. Tubman was no politician. In the middle of the 19th century, the southern states permitted slavery of African-Americans. Tubman ran away from slavery herself and then returned multiple times to the South to rescue slaves and lead them to freedom in the northern states or Canada. She later served as a scout in the Civil War. Tubman is one of the greatest heroes in American history. If the US follows the example of England, it will place her on the $20 bill to remind the people about the possibilities for greatness and the regrettable past.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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