CRF Blog

Code-Breaker

by Bill Hayes

In Code-Breaker for the New Yorker, Jim Holt looks at the life of Alan Turing and discusses the following works: The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt; Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film ‘The Imitation Game’ by Andrew Hodges; and Breaking the Code, a play by Hugh Whitemore.

Manchester University, was found dead by his housekeeper. Before getting into bed the night before, he had taken a few bites out of an apple that was, apparently, laced with cyanide. At an inquest, a few days later, his death was ruled a suicide. Turing was, by necessity rather than by inclination, a man of secrets. One of his secrets had been exposed two years before his death, when he was convicted of “gross indecency” for having a homosexual affair. Another, however, had not yet come to light. It was Turing who was chiefly responsible for breaking the German Enigma code during the Second World War, an achievement that helped save Britain from defeat in the dark days of 1941. Had this been publicly known, he would have been acclaimed a national hero. But the existence of the British code-breaking effort remained closely guarded even after the end of the war; the relevant documents weren’t declassified until the nineteen-seventies. And it wasn’t until the eighties that Turing got the credit he deserved for a second, and equally formidable, achievement: creating the blueprint for the modern computer.

It is natural to view Turing as a gay martyr, hounded to death for his sexuality despite his great service to humanity. But it is also tempting to speculate about whether he really was a suicide. The flight to Moscow, in 1951, of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, British diplomats and rumored lovers who had been covertly working for the Soviets, prompted one London newspaper to editorialize that Britain should adopt the American policy of “weeding out both sexual and political perverts.” Turing’s role in wartime code-breaking had left him with an intimate knowledge of British intelligence. After his conviction for homosexuality, he may have seemed out of control. He began travelling abroad in search of sex, visiting countries bordering on the Eastern bloc. The coroner at his inquest knew none of this. No one tested the apple found by his bedside for cyanide.

The possibility of clandestine assassination is hinted by the title of David Leavitt’s short biography, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer” (Norton/Atlas; $22.95), borrowed from the Hitchcock thriller. Leavitt, the author of several novels and short-story collections with gay protagonists, rings the gay-martyr theme in the book’s opening pages by invoking another film classic, “The Man in the White Suit.” In that 1951 comedy, which Leavitt reads as a gay allegory, a scientist is chased by a mob that feels threatened by a miraculous invention of his. Then a third film is mentioned, one that evidently made an impression on Turing: the 1937 Disney animation “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Those who knew him said that he was particularly fond of chanting the witch’s couplet, “Dip the apple in the brew, / Let the sleeping death seep through.” So we’re prepared for a life story that, though steeped in logic and mathematics, is part mystery, part parable of sexual politics, part fairy tale.

Alan Mathison Turing was conceived in India, where his father worked in the Indian civil service, and born in 1912 during a visit by his parents to London. Instead of taking their child back to the East, they sent him to live with a retired Army couple in a seaside English town. [more]