Wot Grandad did in the war

When I was a kid I was very interested in amateur radio. This is hardly a surprise, since my dad was an electronics engineer at the time and his father an electrical engineer. I never got my licence, as it happens, mostly because I like to listen but I’m not so keen to hear my own voice. But I learned an awful lot from all those coils and condensers and ridiculously long aerials. In fact I learned a lot that I didn’t even really understand at the time but which comes in very handy for my present work. Understand radio and you understand everything!

Anyway, Dad was telling me recently about Grandad’s radio work during the war. His callsign was G2BPT, and I can imagine Grandad’s light Norfolk accent in my head, coughing politely and saying, “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is golf two bravo papa tango calling CQ.” Except in truth he probably only used Morse, so really it should be dah-dit-dah-dit, dah-dah-dit-dah, etc. But during the war, Grandad was a radio listener, writing down secret German messages that he picked up on his radio and sending them off to a mysterious post office box somewhere. Here he is with his wireless set:

Dad didn’t know very much about what my grandfather actually did, though, because of course people simply didn’t speak about such things at the time or even for decades afterwards. Walls have ears. He did show me one of Grandad’s message pads years ago and I’m pretty sure it was an Enigma message but that’s as much as I could say. But a few days ago Dad emailed to say he’d realized he’d been Googling for the wrong information: he’d been looking up stuff to do with the radio secret service, when in fact it was the Radio Security Service. So I just had a quick Google myself (Google is spelled  − −  .   − − −    − − −   − −  .   . −  . .   .   for you old folks) and came across this rather charming documentary about the Service, made in 1979. I thought it was really interesting so I thought I’d share it, partly because this year is Alan Turing’s centenary and this is my modest connection with that world, but mostly because I know a bunch of you are inveterate geeks just like me and will enjoy it…

http://vimeo.com/32989779

Way to go, Grandad!

P.S. Who invented radio? If you say Marconi you aren’t geek enough! I came across this the other day and thought I’d help spread it. Nikola Tesla was a real genius, an oppressed hero and the owner of the mother of all spark generators. You might like to help preserve what’s left of it: http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_museum

An end to Turing Instability

Alan Turing was a superhero. Admittedly he got a bit distracted messing around with mathematical logic, artificial intelligence and inventing the digital computer, but in-between he also developed some of the first ever theoretical ideas in artificial life, specifically his work on nonlinear dynamical systems in the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and his posthumously published and little-known explorations of “unorganised machines“, which we would nowadays recognise as neural networks. Unlike the digital computer, neither of these alternative paradigms for computation has yet been fully developed.

But Turing was also wrapped up in the highly secretive world of code-breaking, through which he helped to shorten the Second World War substantially and save thousands of lives. Wartime Britain took its secrets very seriously and this “walls have ears” attitude became so ingrained in the culture that much of Turing’s work was hidden from view for too long to become part of established history. As a consequence, few members of the general public had even heard of him, let alone realised his role in creating the 21st Century, at least until Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing came out in the early 1980’s. Bletchley Park, the headquarters of the code-breaking effort, still unaccountably struggles to preserve what’s left of its gently rotting history in the absence of government support.

Turing was also gay, and hence became considered a security threat. He was sentenced to be chemically castrated and came under harassing scrutiny. In 1954 he apparently committed suicide. At the very least he was effectively hounded to an early death by the British government, and it is even possible that he was secretly assassinated. This is not the way to treat heroes.

But last week, thanks to a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued the following official apology. It’s far too late for Alan Turing, but I’m sure it will go some way towards correcting the insult to his name. I’m sure the gay community will appreciate the sentiment too, although I imagine this is just one of a thousand hoped-for apologies as far as they’re concerned. Apologies are pretty empty things when given by someone other than those who carried out the offence, but I do think they represent a statement of intent for the future and can be held against people when they act hypocritically, so I think it is still A Good Thing and a valued correction to history. I hope it will now be followed by some positive government action to preserve our heritage at Bletchley Park, where I’ve twice had the honour to tread in Alan’s footsteps and give talks on AI.

Thanks to Ann for telling me about the petition.

[Update: September 30: Bletchley Park have just announced a grant of half a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and are applying for another 4 million. English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council have also provided almost a million for repairs. Jolly good show chaps!]

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown