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Alan Turing, Computing Genius And WWII Hero, To Be On U.K.'s New 50-Pound Note

The Bank of England's new 50-pound note will feature mathematician Alan Turing, honoring the code-breaker who helped lay the foundation for computer science.
Bank of England
The Bank of England's new 50-pound note will feature mathematician Alan Turing, honoring the code-breaker who helped lay the foundation for computer science.

Alan Turing, the father of computer science and artificial intelligence who broke Adolf Hitler's Enigma code system in World War II — but who died an outcast because of his homosexuality — will be featured on the Bank of England's new 50-pound note.

The new note will be printed on polymer and will bear a 1951 photo of Turing, the bank announced Monday. It's expected to enter circulation by the end of 2021. It will include a quote from Turing: "This is only a foretaste of what is to come and only the shadow of what is going to be."

Turing was just 41 when he died from poisoning in 1954, a death that was deemed a suicide. For decades, his status as a giant in mathematics was largely unknown, thanks to the secrecy around his computer research and the social taboos about his sexuality. His story became more widely known after the release of the 2014 movie The Imitation Game.

"Alan Turing was an outstanding mathematician whose work has had an enormous impact on how we live today," the Bank of England's governor, Mark Carney, said in unveiling the new note. "Alan Turing's contributions were far-ranging and pathbreaking. Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand."

In the U.K., 50-pound notes are not commonly used in many daily transactions, and some retailers refuse to accept them. They've also been called the "currency of corrupt elites," as the BBC notes.

In recent years, other updates to the Bank of England's currency have featured Jane Austen on the 10-pound note and Winston Churchill on the 5-pound. A new 20-pound note is expected next year, bearing a self-portrait by the artist J.M.W. Turner.

The Turing commemoration is the U.K. government's latest public reevaluation of the genius who was convicted of homosexuality under "gross indecency" laws in 1952. By the time he died, Turing had been stripped of his security clearance and was forced to undergo a "chemical castration" regime of estrogen shots to avoid serving a two-year prison term.

According to biographer David Leavitt, who wrote a book about Turing titled The Man Who Knew Too Much, some of the persecution that Turing faced was due to the government's fears that he could become a security risk. It was a sharp fall for Turing, who had toiled in secret at Britain's military intelligence headquarters at Bletchley Park to help defeat an existential threat to his country.

As for how Turing saw his own sexuality, Leavitt told NPR in 2012: "His attitude was that it was perfectly normal and not a big deal. And so he behaved as if everyone else felt the same way, which was obviously a big mistake at that time."

In astrophysicist Adam Frank's view, Turing's groundbreaking and important work was more than enough to earn a Nobel Prize — an honor Turing never received. Elaborating on Turing's achievements, Frank wrote for NPR:

"In 1935, at the ripe age of 22, Turing devised the abstract mathematical background to define a computing machine. Now called a 'Turing machine,' it would sequentially respond to input and generate output in a step-by-step (i.e., algorithmic) fashion. Turing machines are the essence of every device with a chip in it that you have ever encountered. That's why Turing stands, essentially, at the head of the line when it comes to the creation of the digital age. He is the father of all computers."

The anti-homosexuality laws that snared Turing remained in effect until 1967.

Queen Elizabeth II issued a royal pardon for Turing in late 2013. Three years later, the U.K. justice minister issued a mass pardon for thousands of gay men.

"It was a momentous day for all our family when we heard that Alan Turing was going to be pardoned back in 2013," Turing's great-niece, Rachel Barnes, told NPR in 2016. "One of the best days ever, and we celebrated like mad. But the same pardon is deserved by everybody else."

Those breakthroughs came after repeated attempts to secure a posthumous pardon for Turing in Parliament. When one such bid failed in the House of Lords, opponents of the measure said it wasn't appropriate, reasoning that Turing must have known he was breaking the law.

In 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a full apology to Turing, thanking him for his "contribution to humankind" and for fighting fascism and war.

"You deserved so much better," Brown said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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