Britain’s redesigned £50 note featuring Bletchley Park code breaker Alan Turing has stirred up the controversy around Britain’s top code cracker, a mathematician who helped England win World War II by creating the so-called ‘Bombe’ machine capable of deciphering Nazi military orders.
The £50 ($70) banknote, released with a GCHQ puzzle series in 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of his birth date (June 23, 1912), features a photo of Turing taken in 1951. The ticker tape depicts his birth date in binary code and Turing’s signature is taken from the visitor’s book at the house of Turing’s mentor, Max Newman.
GCHQ marked the release of the banknote by unveiling a giant LGBT+ inspired artwork (below). Turing is shown inside ‘drums’ from the Bombe code breaking machine and, naturally, GCHQ hid codes inside its art as well!
Turing died in mysterious circumstances in 1954, years after pleading guilty to the criminal act of ‘gross indecency’. He admitted an affair with a man and agreed to chemical castration treatment as an alternative to prison. Turing was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth and, in 2009, the UK government formally apologized for his ‘horrifying’ criminal sentence.
Nothing was straightforward about Turing’s life or very unusual death by cyanide poisoning. Here are seven things you likely don’t know about Britain’s condemned code breaker.
1. Turing died in 1954 just weeks before his 42nd birthday. A coroner ruled that he’d committed suicide by biting into an apple laced with cyanide but questions still surround his death. The Turing Guide authors question why the apple wasn’t tested for cyanide. Others note Turing was in a cheerful mood in his final days and left a note on his desk reminding himself of tasks that needed doing. No motive was found. While some point to the side effects of chemical castration, he died a year after the treatment had ended. Turing used cyanide in his home laboratory, leaving open the possibility of an accident or, even, murder.
2. Although Britain’s security services MI5 and MI6 have apologized for their past treatment of the LGBT community, for some it has been a long time coming.
The ban on gay men and women serving in MI5 and MI6 was in force up to 1991.
Although Turing was a WWII hero for his code breaking work, he was stripped of his security clearance after his criminal conviction in 1952. At the time, there were a series of Cold War scandals including five Cambridge-educated spies who defected to the Soviet Union.
3. Turing also studied at Cambridge and later Princeton from 1936 to 1938. He returned to the US to work as a liaison between the US and British cryptanalyst community in 1942-1943 but it was a fraught relationship. Turing was supposed to share UK breakthroughs but British intelligence ordered him to reveal as little as possible to stop leaks.
4. Turing reportedly had an IQ of 185 but he was a typical 17-year-old. Turing’s report card from Sherborne School in Dorset, England notes his weakness in English and French studies. While his mathematics ‘shows distinct promise’ it was undermined by untidy work, and his essays were deemed grandiose beyond his abilities.
5. In The Imitation Game, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) recruits code breakers including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) by asking them to solve a crossword puzzle. In fact, Britain’s Daily Telegraph organized the competition to help the British government identify possible code breakers. Candidates didn’t know they were applying for a job. Joan Clarke was already working at Bletchley Park in 1942 and Turing had nothing to do with the crossword’s creation.
6. There were a few other inaccuracies in the film. The Bombe machine used to decipher German code was not named ‘Christopher’, after Turing’s deceased childhood friend. The first operating version of the Bombe - developed from a Polish device called the ‘Bomba’ - was actually called ‘Victory’ and Turing didn’t create the Bombe alone. Gordon Welchman, a Cambridge-educated mathematician, who later taught at the legendary MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), made a significant contribution.
7. Turing likely never met Moscow’s spy John Cairncross, the fifth member of the Cambridge Five. The men were assigned to separate units and security was tight. Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges called the idea of a working relationship ‘ludicrous’. In his autobiography, The Enigma Spy, Cairncross writes: “The rigid separation of the different units made contact with other staff members almost impossible, so I never got to know anyone apart from my direct operational colleagues.”