Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Olympic honour for Alan Turing

Over at The Guardian I write:

Last year I led a campaign to obtain an apology for the mistreatment of the British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing's prosecution for homosexuality led to the death of a true genius at the age of only 41 in 1954. On 10 September last year, Gordon Brown issued an apology that recognised Turing's stature as one of the greatest Britons. But Britain has a final opportunity to unapologetically recognise Alan Turing in two years' time, at the 2012 Olympics.

Read the rest here.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

£1,000 for Bletchley Park thanks to The Geek Atlas

When The Geek Atlas was published in June 2009, O'Reilly's UK arm decided to pledge to donate 50p per copy sold in the UK to help fund Bletchley Park.

O'Reilly has now made good on that pledge and with almost 2,000 copies of the book sold in the UK it has donated £1,000 to Bletchley Park.

And the 50p per copy pledge continues. All copies of The Geek Atlas sold in the UK result in a 50p donation to keep this wonderful place alive.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

A reply from Buckingham Palace

About a month ago I wrote a letter to Her Majesty The Queen asking her to consider knighting Alan Turing.

Here's the reply from the palace:


Monday, September 28, 2009

How to fail at journalism

During the period I was campaigning for the Alan Turing apology I was described inaccurately in the press in various ways (this stopped when I told the press how to describe me). But recently a wonderful piece of total inaccuracy has come to light in an article for the Party for Socialism and Liberation:

After a decades-long struggle, led by Turing’s friend and biographer John Graham-Cumming [...]

Wow, four major errors in one small phrase.

1. I was born years (make that years and years) after Alan Turing died. How exactly does that make me his friend?

2. I am not his biographer.

3. There was no struggle, I started an online petition and worked on it in my spare time.

4. And that decades-long struggle lasted a full... 37 days.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Back to normal life... time for an official release event for my book, The Geek Atlas

Now that the dust has settled on my Alan Turing petition with the phone call from the Prime Minister, it's back to normal life for me. Part of that's a book release event for The Geek Atlas.

If you are in London on Saturday, September 19 and fancy meeting me (for whatever strange reason!) then come join me at the Brunel Museum at 1400.

Full details of the event are here.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

"Hello John. It's Gordon Brown."

Last night the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a long statement about my Alan Turing petition that included a clear apology for his treatment. Unfortunately, I've been in bed nursing the flu so it was only by chance that an amazing sequence of events occurred.

Yesterday evening I realized that I had to check my email (I'd been avoiding it while ill) because of a work commitment on Friday and so I logged in to find a message that read:

John - I wonder if you could call me as a matter of urgency, regarding your petition. Very many thanks!


Kirsty xxxxxxx
10 Downing St, SW1A 2AA
Tel: 020x xxxx xxxx

So, I called back. The telephone number was the Downing Street switchboard and after Kirsty told me that the government was planning to apologize for Alan Turing's treatment she then said "Gordon would like to talk to you".

A few minutes later the phone rang and a soft Scottish voice said: "Hello John. It's Gordon Brown. I think you know why I am calling you". And then he went on to tell me why. He thanked me for starting the campaign, spoke about a "wrong that he been left unrighted too long", said he thought I was "brave" (not sure why) and spoke about the terrible consequences of homophobic laws and all the people affected by them.

I was mostly speechless. The Prime Minister was calling me!

What no one saw was the work to make this happen. And what many don't realize is that the 'campaign' consisted of a staff of one: me. Although many people enthusiastically got the word out via Twitter, blogs and other means, I spent a great deal of time massaging the press, handling celebrities, and keeping the momentum to make it happen. One day, perhaps, I'll tell the story.

Most of the planning was done from the top deck of a London double-decker bus on the way to work. Amazing what you can do with 30 minutes of peace and an iPhone.

But what I must do is thank all 30,000 people who signed the petition, the media who ran with the story (especially the Manchester Evening News, BBC Radio Manchester, The Independent and BBC Newsnight) when it was still a small story. Thank you to all in the LGBT press that interviewed me and got the ball rolling in the first place. And thank you to the big names like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry who got the story out to a wide audience.

And thank you Gordon Brown. Your telephone conversation with me was heartfelt, and your apology clear and unambiguous. What a wonderful outcome!

For me, it's the end of my campaign.

But for others it is not. It's vital that Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing secure funding to keep them alive.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

You don't have to be gay

Talking to the editor of a major magazine aimed at gay men it became clear that he assumed, incorrectly, that I was gay, and that that was an important factor motivating me to push my Alan Turing petition. I understand why he assumed that, but it also worries me: it makes it easy for people to assume that this is a 'gay issue'.

It's not...

You don't have to be gay to think that prosecuting a man for a private consensual sex act who just seven years before had been hailed as a hero of the Second World War was simply wrong.

You don't have to be gay to be appalled that just thirteen years after Alan Turing committed suicide the crime he committed was no longer a crime.

You don't have to be gay to think that chemically castrating a man (after offering him the "alternative" of prison) because of his sexuality is simply disgusting.

You don't have to be gay to feel the pain of the bitter irony that Alan Turing helped defeat a regime whose ideology was based on prejudice, only to find himself prosecuted because of another form of prejudice at home.

You simply have to be human.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

The world is watching, Mr Brown

As I write over 25,000 people in Great Britain have signed my Alan Turing petition. To think that I was worried about getting 500 signatures!

On Monday, the BBC posted a story about the petition and it's now gone global. My Inbox was stuffed with messages from around the world in support of the petition and expressing regret that non-Britons couldn't sign the petition.

And now the international press has picked up the story. After all, Turing was not just a British genius, he was a genius full stop. A man who deserves to be known in Britain and worldwide.

So, Mr Brown, 25,000 people in Britain (and growing by the minute) including big names such as scientist Richard Dawkins, writer Ian McEwan, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, philosopher A C Graying are backing the campaign. And now the rest of the world watches. Here's a selection of the worldwide press:

Here I have only included major press, there are many, many more articles in the specialist press.

Update More countries have now covered the story:

Update I now can't keep up with all the international press. If you are interested here's a suitable Google News search.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dear Media People

Thank you for all the articles about Alan Turing and my petition. Just one small complaint.

Please don't call me a "top programmer", "leading British computer expert", "leading computer scientist", ...

An accurate description would be: "John Graham-Cumming, computer programmer and author of The Geek Atlas".



Alan Turing does have surviving family

One of the objections to an apology for Alan Turing is the claim that he has no family. Clearly, Alan Turing as both a gay man and as someone who was given estrogen injections doesn't have any direct descendants.

But he does have family.

Turing had an older brother and his brother does have direct descendants. One of them wrote the following note to me:

After reading about your petition on the BBC website, I thought you'd like to know that there are members of Alan Turing's family around (although not direct descendents for obvious reasons!). He was my mother's uncle. Most of the family have not retained the name due to marriage, but my step-uncle is a Turing. My family have always remembered Alan Turing proudly.

Other people wrote to say that they know of other family members. So if Gordon Brown does decide on offering an apology there are family members who could decide to accept (or reject) it.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

An email from MI5

So I started the Alan Turing petition and I wrote to Her Majesty The Queen asking her to consider a posthumous knighthood for the man. But you didn't know that I also wrote to the Security Service (MI5) asking them to release whatever they could about the death of Alan Turing.

Here's my email:

I have been leading a campaign to get the British Government to apologize for the prosecution of Alan Turing. This campaign takes the form of a petition on the Number 10 web site (you can see if here:

Personally, I believe that Turing's death was suicide, but there are rumours about him possibly having been killed because he 'knew too much'. I find these rumours silly, but would the Security Service be willing to release whatever files it has on Alan Turing so that any information you have be made public?

It is now 55 years since Turing died, and I assume that most of what you know about him can be made public without affecting operational security.

Thank you,

Today, I received an email reply:

Dear John

Thank you for your enquiry.

All of the historical information that we can currently release is either available on our website, or is held by the National Archives

You can learn more about this history of the Security Service at the National Archives at


The Enquiries Team
The Security Service

So, first I popped over to the Security Service web site and did a search for "alan turing":

Hmm. No dice. So, it's off to the National Archives and the same search:

So, that was a complicated way of saying "No".


The 'big names' backing my Alan Turing petition

As the BBC reported scientist Richard Dawkins, writer Ian McEwan and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell are all backing my Alan Turing petition.

If you read down the over 16,000 names on the list you'll see other celebrity names popping out, but I have not been able to confirm them. Are you a 'big name' who's backing the campaign? If so, please get in contact.

A big thank you to the 34 professors who have signed the petition, and especially to Professor Noel Sharky for having me on his podcast.

Update Just noticed a tweet from Labour MP Tom Watson about my Alan Turing petition.

Update The British philosopher A. C. Grayling just confirmed that he's signed the petition and thinks it's an "excellent idea".

Update Stephen Fry just tweeted his support.

Update Two more famous scientists on the list: Sir Roger Penrose and Sir Michael Berry.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Letter to Her Majesty The Queen

Her Majesty The Queen
Buckingham Palace
London SW1A 1AA

August 25, 2009


I write to ask Your Majesty to consider awarding a posthumous knighthood to the British mathematician, code-breaker and computer scientist Alan Turing.

Alan Turing was born in 1912 in London and in 1935 became a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. One year later he published a mathematical paper that is the foundation of all of computer science. In the paper he proposed a machine, which we now call a Turing Machine, that is the basis for all computers; the machine on which I write this letter to Your Majesty follows Turing’s rules.

Alan Turing went on to work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and was instrumental in helping break Nazi German codes including the Enigma and is credited with shortening the war by a number of years. After the war Turing worked in Manchester on the birth of computers as we know them.

The United States-based Association of Computing Machinery has been giving an award in Turing’s name since 1966, and he was awarded the OBE in 1945 for his secret war time work.

But Alan Turing’s life ended in tragedy when after being prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’ (Alan Turing was a homosexual) he was forced to have estrogen injections and committed suicide. On that day in 1954, at age 41, Great Britain lost one of its greatest minds.

Since then Great Britain has done little to honour him. A section of road in Manchester is named after him, and a blue plaque is fixed to the wall of his former home.

I write today to Your Majesty to ask that Alan Turing be honoured with a posthumous knighthood that recognizes what a great man he was; there is no doubt in my mind that if Turing had lived past age 41 his international impact would have been great and that he likely would have received a knighthood while alive.

I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient subject,

Dr John Graham-Cumming, MA (Oxon), DPhil (Oxon)

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Alan Turing petition nears 5,000 signatories

My Alan Turing petition has rocked past the 500 signatures I thought I might get to reach almost 5,000. At the rate people are signing I'd expect 5,000 to be reached either today or tomorrow.

The campaign has got quite a bit of media coverage. Here's a round up:


Daily Telegraph: Britain should apologize for the shameful way it treated Alan Turing.

The Independent: The Turing Engima: Campaigners demand pardon for mathematics genius and Dawkins calls for apology for Turing.

Manchester Evening News: Campaign to win an official apology for Alan Turing and Gay backing for Turing apology.

Belfast Telegraph: Prosecuted for being gay: campaigners demand pardon for genius Alan Turing and Dawkins calls for official apology for Alan Turing.


PRI/BBC World Service: Apology campaign for British Nazi code breaker.

BBC Radio Ulster: Sunday Sequence.


Channel 4 News: Pardon for Enigma codebreaker, Alan Turing?

Note to gay readers: I've deliberately excluded the specialist gay news outlets from that list so that people realize that this is not simply a gay issue. Please don't think I'm ignoring you and your great coverage!

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Gay Agenda

One of the adverse effects of my Alan Turing Petition is that some commentators see it as part of a 'gay agenda'. Here's a comment from someone:

This is sad. Turing is being used by sectors of the UK gay lobby as a political wedge to bash an already-weak Labour government. Despite the good intentions, we all know that the newsbite would be "Brown apologises to gay war hero". That is wrong on so many levels.

I've seen other similar quotes implying that what's behind the petition is a 'gay agenda' or some local government trying to be PC. All there is behind this 'campaign' (that's the newspapers word, not mine) is one person: me.

Last night while talking on BBC Radio Manchester the interviewer asked me a question about why Alan Turing isn't better known in the gay community. It was then that I had to admit (since I wasn't planning to talk about sexuality) that I'm not gay.

That probably comes as a shock to some people who don't understand that my petition isn't motivated by a hidden agenda. I think Alan Turing's treatment was appalling. I think we lost a great, great man when he died at 41 who had much more to contribute and I think that Britain has not adequately recognized this great man, or the manner of his decline. If he hadn't died so young we probably would have knighted him and celebrated his genius.

I do not expect that the British Government will apologize. They are damned if they do because they'll really need to apologize to all the other men prosecuted for gross indecency and then there's probably a list of other nasty things in the past that people could ask for an apology for.

But if they do want to honour Alan Turing (and others who were prosecuted), then I suggest that they fund Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing in his and their honour.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Alan M. Turing Endowment

I've done a few newspaper and radio interviews about my Alan Turing petition and I've been asked a couple of times about how to honour Turing's memory. Since I fully don't expect the British Government to actually apologize, I have an alternative suggestion.

Currently, Bletchley Park (where Turing broke the Nazi Enigma code) and The National Museum of Computing (which is inside the Bletchley Park grounds) receive no government money for their upkeep.

It would be an appropriate way to honour Alan Turing by creating an endowment to keep these two organizations going. Given his contribution to both it would be fitting that in one place we could talk about his computing work and code breaking work.

And it's about time the British Government stumped up to help pay for the upkeep of these two important treasures. Without Bletchley Park and Alan Turing I'd likely be writing this in German :-)

And the computer I write this post on follows the rules that Turing laid down.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

My Alan Turing petition hit the magic 500 signatures mark

My petition just hit 500 signatures which means that I will be getting a response from the government about it.


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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

My Alan Turing petition

A while back I wrote about the appalling treatment of Alan Turing and suggested that the UK government should apologize. Someone suggested that I turn this into a petition to the UK government.

That petition has now been approved.

If 500 people sign it there will eventually be a response from the government to the petition. If you are a British citizen and wish to sign the petition you can do so on the Number 10 web site here.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Turing Test and Prejudice

Yesterday, I blogged about how I believed that Alan Turing deserves an apology for the way he was treated. A few people asked how we should apologize. Here's what I would say.


I am sorry for the way you were treated. I am sorry that Britain treated a man of your genius, a hero of the Second World War, so despicably.

You laid the foundations of computer science, you helped break the Nazi Enigma code, and you were cut down in your prime because of prejudice. In your death we lost a great man who no doubt had much more to offer the world.

In 1950 you published a paper in which you proposed a way to determine if a machine was intelligent or not. This has become known as the Turing Test, and it has wider implications that just machine intelligence.

Your test involved asking a person to distinguish between a human intelligence and a machine intelligence by removing prejudice. You limit the judge to communicating with the human and machine via an intermediary (you proposed a teleprinter) so that the judge is unable to see or hear who they are communicating with. The judge is limited to judging intelligence alone. If the judge cannot tell the difference then the machine is deemed intelligent.

But replace the machine in your test with another human with some supposedly undesirable characteristic. Your test can pit a straight man against a gay man, a white man against black man, a man against a woman. I imagine if you and I were hidden behind the teleprinters, that you would be determined to be more intelligent.

Without the prejudice of knowing your sexuality, skin colour or sex, only your true values come through in the Turing Test.

At the end of that paper you write "We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done." You took your own life four years later, after being prosecuted for homosexuality. I cannot fathom how much we lost when we lost you.

I am sorry that these things happened to you. But you may ask me, "What good is being sorry?"

An apology is really an atonement for the past, wrapped around a promise for the future. My promise (and I know there are others who will agree with me) is that we won't let prejudice prevent us from applying our own Turing Test to the people we deal with.

You may also ask me whether I write this because of an agenda. Because I want to take your death and use it to promote gay-rights, to hold you up as an example of how prejudice against gays harms the world.

I would be lying to you if I didn't tell you that I am personally uncomfortable with the implications of the acceptance of homosexuality. I suffer great internal conflict about questions such as "Should gay couples be allowed to have or adopt children?". I cannot overcome these feelings because they are grounded in an upbringing and they are in conflict with rationality and my own experiences.

But I see clearly that my feelings conflict with a simple truth: if I allow irrational opinions to guide my actions I lose my way. In allowing irrationality around homosexuality to guide our collective actions we lost you.

What we all need is to apply the Turing Test daily. I know that despite my own misguided feelings, I apply your test to those I encounter, and that is my way of apologizing to you.


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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Alan Turing deserves an apology from the British Government

When I started writing The Geek Atlas there was one name that was getting in the book no matter what: Alan Turing.

Alan Turing matters on many levels because he was, in the words of the memorial in Manchester:

Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice

Turing's work has affected us all. He's best know for his involvement in Second World War code breaking (especially for helping to break Engima) and if all he had done was that we would be grateful.

But Turing was also a critical pioneer of computer science. He defined a theoretical model of computers (at a time when 'computer' meant a person, often a woman, who computed numbers) that holds true today. He suggested how we might determine whether a computer was sentient (with the Turing Test).

Turing's death should remind us how prejudice ruins and degrades.

Alan Turing was gay. And he was prosecuted for 'indecent acts' and eventually took his own life aged 41. This man, younger than me, killed himself because at the time homosexuality was illegal and having been prosecuted he was chemically castrated in an attempt to 'cure' him. He had been stripped of his security clearance.

For years, his legacy was largely ignored outside the computer community. To quote Wikipedia:

In 1994 a stretch of the A6010 road (the Manchester city intermediate ring road) was named Alan Turing Way. A bridge carrying this road was widened, and carries the name 'Alan Turing Bridge'.

A frikkin' Ring Road!

It wasn't until 2001 that a statue was erected.

Today is Alan Turing's 97th birthday. Or at least it could have been if it were not for his prosecution and untimely death.

Isn't it time the British Government apologized for the way he was treated? We shouldn't let this anniversary of his death go by without recognizing the great works this man did and the ignominious way in which he was treated.

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