How Alan Turing Finally Got a Posthumous Apology

Guest blogger John Graham-Cumming initiated and led the successful petition drive to procure an apology to Alan Turing from the UK government. John is the author of The Geek Atlas, CTO of a stealth-mode start-up, and a longtime programmer who has a doctorate in computer security. If you’re in London this Saturday, September 19, come by the launch party for his book at the Brunel Museum.

There's a long tradition in the UK of direct democracy, with citizens
petitioning the Prime Minister themselves. Typically, thousands of
signatures are collected on paper and then delivered directly to the
Prime Minister's home at No. 10
Downing Street
in London. The petitioners arrive at No. 10 and
hand the signatures through the open front door.

But the British government has made great strides to bring many
aspects of government relations into the electronic age. Through the
non-profit MySociety.org the
government has created web sites (all with open-source code) for
citizens to interact with local and central government offices.

One such web site is the No. 10 Downing Street petitions page (its code
is open-source and can be found here).

I used the petitions web site, a collection of Web 2.0 technologies,
and a bit of media savvy to successfully petition the government to
apologize for the prosecution of the seminal computer scientist Alan Turing.

And I did most of it from the top of a red London double-decker bus
using an iPhone.

Alan Turing did three amazing things in his working life: he laid the
foundations of computer science by thinking up a theoretical computer
called the Turing
Machine
, he worked through the Second World War breaking Nazi
German codes, and after the war he worked on artificial intelligence
and defined the Turing Test. His
life was cut short at 41 when he had begun to work on morphogenesis in
plants.

Alan Turing was also gay and he was prosecuted for “gross indecency” (essentially being gay) in 1952. To avoid prison he agreed to be injected with female hormones as a sort of ‘cure’ for homosexuality. Two years after his prosecution he was dead: he killed himself by eating an apple dipped in potassium cyanide.

June 23, 2009 was the anniversary of Alan Turing's birth (he would
have been 97) and I posted a blog entry entitled Alan
Turing deserves an apology from the British Government
. It
generated a few comments and I posted a follow-up entry the next day
with an example of how
I would apologize
for my government's actions in 1952.

That night I created a petition on the
No. 10 Downing Street web site asking for a government apology for the
treatment of Alan Turing.

On August 4, 2009 the petition was approved and made public. I
mentioned it on my blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, and posted it to Y
Combinator's Hacker News. At the time I thought I'd have a hard time
getting 500 people to sign. Little did I know the petition would
gather over 30,000 signatures in 37 days and elicit an incredible
apology from the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown preceded by a
personal call to my mobile phone.

This chart shows the number of signatures per day between August 4,
2009 and September 10, 2009. (click for larger view)

turing_article_chart.png

The same day the story appeared
on Reddit. Signatures started to come in slowly.

The next day the petition was picked up by the first journalist to
write about it: Jessica Geen of Pink News wrote an online only story
which made the story jump over from being covered just by computer
scientists and into the LGBT community. The LGBT press would turn out
to be a strong ally reporting on the growing petition throughout the
campaign.

Four days later, on August 9, 2009 the petition passed
500 signatures. This was the magic level needed to get a government
response. I was still pretty skeptical of getting an apology but I
certainly wasn't going to be satisfied by 500 names and kept promoting
it on Twitter, my blog, and elsewhere.

The first really big break came on August 16, 2009 when the Manchester
Evening News wrote
about the petition. Manchester was where Alan Turing died and where
he had worked before his death. There's a great deal of local pride
in Manchester's adopted local boy Alan Turing. The following night I
was a guest on
BBC Radio Manchester's gay hour.

On August 18, 2009 the petition made the national news with a major
story
in The Independent, and at the same time the first celebrity
name appeared on the list of signatures: Richard
Dawkins
.

With one celebrity name and national press I began to think the
petition might really get noticed. The following night Richard
Dawkins and I appeared
on Channel 4 News to talk about the petition (Dawkins was filmed
looking regal in his garden; I was filmed in classic programmer
clothing: bad shoes, dirty shorts and a crumpled shirt). The same day
I appeared
on the BBC World Service and PRI's The World.

Sitting on the bus each morning I would catch up on email regarding
the petition and scan the list of signatures looking for celebrities
who I would then try to contact through their agents. I also plotted
how to get the story in the press. Anyone who wrote about the story
got added to my Turing/Media email list and each morning I would
prepare an update on the story with the number of signatures, who had
signed and any other events, and send it out.

Over the next week many things happened: I appeared on BBC
Radio Ulster, I wrote a letter
to Her Majesty The Queen asking her to consider a posthumous
knighthood for Alan Turing, the veteran human-rights campaigner Peter
Tatchell
signed the petition and I received an email from the
writer Ian McEwan to say that he had signed.

I knew it was time to get the story out as widely as possible and so I
emailed two BBC journalists that I knew to say that I thought the
petition was an important story and that they needed to cover it.

Do you think you’d be interested in covering the Alan Turing Petition?
It’s now got backing from Richard Dawkins and has been covered by BBC
Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Northern Ireland, The World Service,
Channel 4 News, The Independent, …

Watch: http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/uk/pardon+for+enigma+codebreaker+alan+turing/3315187
for good background.

There are now 4,800 signatories.

John.

On August 31, 2009 BBC News online covered
the story with a long article about the petition, and its celebrity
backers. The night before I had gone to bed feeling happy that there
were 5,000 signatures on my petition; I woke up to 16,000, by the next
morning there were 20,000. That day I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland.

The single enormous leap in signatures in the chart above happened
because of the BBC News online story.

On September 1, 2009 I appeared on BBC
Radio 4's PM program, CNN covered
the campaign, I appeared
on CBC's As It Happens, and Stephen Fry signed and tweeted
urging his followers to sign.

The same day I received two extraordinary emails. Unbeknownst to
anyone I had written to MI5 asking them to release documents about
Alan Turing's death in an effort to clear up any doubt about whether
his death could have been murder. They denied
my request.

The second email
came from a member of Alan Turing's surviving family. The BBC report
had erroneously said that he had no family. But that was incorrect:
Turing's three nieces remembered him well, and he had a surviving
nephew.

On the bus home I heard directly that Alan Turing's nieces had many
memories of their Uncle Alan. They even still had his teddy bear. I
hung up and sat at the back of the bus and cried quietly. I had
always felt that Alan Turing's treatment was appalling, but to hear
the family speak of the man was too much. I was convinced that I had
to see my campaign, which had started on an impulse, to its
completion.

Two days later I raced up to Bletchley Park to film the definitive
report
on the campaign with BBC Newsnight's science editor Susan
Watts. The report ran that night and the same day international
coverage
of the campaign exploded with stories in the major press
all over the world. The Newsnight story featured an interview with
Alan Turing's nieces and nephew describing the terrible treatment he
had endured and giving their blessing to the petition.

On September 7, 2009 I did a final piece of radio, appearing on BBC
Radio Ulster. The same day I began to feel unwell with what would
turn out to be a nasty bout of flu.

Lying in bed on September 10, 2009 I had to check my email because of
a work commitment the following day. In my Inbox was the following
email:

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

Kirsty

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

Of course, I called back! I was told that the apology was coming that
night and that “Gordon would like a word with you”. At 19:44 that
evening my mobile phone rang and I was handed the Prime Minister.

“Hello John. It's Gordon Brown. I think you know why I'm calling you.”

Update The nice folks at No. 10 Downing Street and the petitions team released a spreadsheet of the actual day-by-day signatures for the petition period that gives an even clearer picture of the effect of different news outlets (the chart above came from my hand written, sporadic notes). (click for larger view)

updated_turing_chart1.png

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  • Jon

    Hats off to you, I signed the petition and had no idea the lengths you had gone to. It is the best response I have seen from a petition…..well done

  • Elisabeth

    Fantastic story John, thanks for your efforts and congrats.

  • http://www.tonylindskog.com Tony Lindskog

    Kudos John – what an amazing story – hats off to you for fixing an incredible injustice done to a great man for which we all truly owe a lot to.

  • David

    Thank you so much for your work.
    As a Computer Scientist I was always aware of the Alan Turing’s works and tragic end.
    Now he has the respect he deserves.

  • http://sarahmilstein.com Sarah Milstein

    Moving story, John. Thanks so much for sharing not just the details of how it happened, but also your personal experience as things developed.

  • Damoon Rashidi

    Note: The following is just my opinion, and so, it matters very little in the grand scheme of things.

    Jesus, let this thing die already. Yes, the way he was treated was horrible and despicable, but an apology to a dead person means absolutely nothing. It’s an empty and meaningless gesture. Especially when that apology comes from someone totally unrelated to the event. It’s like picking a random 20-something year-old in Germany and having him apologize for the holocaust.

    That said, there is a lot more to be done for gay rights than this pointless act.

    And so to end this very brief rant: I truly feel that you have wasted a lot of your time for something that really didn’t mean anything, and that time wasted would have been much better spent fighting for a petition for, let’s say, gay marriage, which is still illegal in England.

  • John Hunt

    The PM petition supporting euthanasia at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/suicidelegal/ hasn’t even managed 500: even though national polls have repeatedly shown something like 80% in favour.

    How can we boost this?

  • RMJ Harvey-Amer

    The Croydon Area Gay Society were working on ideas for LGBT History Month 2010, just as the 10 Downing Street Petition started. We had decided to use Alan Turing’s story as unsung war hero who brought the peace forward by about 2 years…with the ‘breaking of the Code’…and then continue the story of how the state with all it’s power and fury destroyed him.
    At 1pm on Saturday 6th February 2010 we shall assemble at the War Memorial in Katherine Street Croydon. We will lay a pink triangle wreath, speak words in memory of Alan and pay homage to all those other thousands of gay men who were hounded, imprisoned by and chemically castrated by a compliant medical profession, regardless of whether they had served in the war and fought against fascism.

    Ray M J Harvey-Amer

  • Sandeep Thomas

    At last Alan is being honored by state

  • http://www.teampaulc.org PaulC

    @Damoon
    What?!
    Are you insane, or just 12 years old?
    Having the Government officially recant a previous action and apologize for it is not the same as a random person apologizing. This is not a pointless act, this is the Government officially recognizing that persecuting a gay man was wrong. Does it grant same sex marriage? No, but its a step in that direction. Getting what you want is generally a series of steps, and rarely a long jump.

    Anyway, I felt that this article was less about gay rights and more about the power of the internet and media. I liked it.

  • Anonymous

    I guess we can all get along afterall.

  • http://atomicagedog.com/ Railboy

    Damoon Rashidi – An unrepentant government would have demonstrated that nothing has changed since Turing’s death.

    Thankfully, things have changed. An apology makes this change tangible. To say that this is ‘nothing’ is to misunderstand human psychology.

  • Robert Pilkington

    I was one of the many thousands the signed the petition after seeing it as a story on BBC News online, what strikes me is the power to be involved within a story in the making.

    Thank you John, I knew of Alan’s contribution’s but like many ignorant to his fate.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    I was pleased that the apology you extracted was not limited to Turing but extended towards all who had received similar mistreatment.

    It is important that we never forget that it was not Turing’s remarkable professional and wartime achievements that made the apology so justified, it was the utter incivility of the punishments he received no matter what he did in life.

    Turing’s great accomplishments made it effective to draw attention to the matter. In that sense, this apology towards all victims and their families can be added to his list of accomplishments. (Which is not to detract from John Graham-Cumming’s role in this!)

    -t

  • http://www.opposableplanets.com Joshua-Michéle Ross

    I would echo the sentiments above – Thankful that you took up this task – that it has brought some measure of closure.
    Thank You John – and congratulations on the book!

  • Damoon Rashidi

    Back to Railboy
    >An unrepentant government would have demonstrated that nothing has changed since Turing’s death.

    I would say that not locking homosexuals up and having them choose between death or their freedom demonstrates a pretty big change.

    All I’m saying is that posthumous apology is pointless by definition for several reasons, so let me list them up 1-by-1.

    1) The current PM had nothing to do with the treatment of Turing, so he has nothing to apologize for.

    2) Saying you are sorry to a dead person isn’t going to make them feel better. Especially when you are the cause of their death.

    3) Just an apology without an act to signify change is an insult. Saying you are sorry about treating homosexuals poorly and then go on and still not have gay marriage legalized is hypocritical at best.

    This is all like one big ignorant publicity stunt.

  • Terry

    You would have had many more signatures had other countries been allowed to sign the petition. Thanks for your effort in getting this to No.10.

  • Dave

    Finally some redress for a great man. As the recent apology by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the “stolen generation” of Aboriginal Australians has clearly illustrated, there is absolutely a case for a subsequent government to say “sorry” for an injustice perpetuated by a predecessor.

    Of course PM Brown’s apology will not bring Alan Turning back, but to suggest that an apology is pointless is just nonsense. In effect, Brown is apologising to all gay men who were treated appallingly during this period.

    RIP Alan Turing – hero, genius and martyr.

  • Martin P. Serna

    Thank you, John. Perhaps Alan was thinking of me when he did his Bletchly Park work even though I was born in the far future and am in nowhere near his intellectual class, so I have been wanting to have him be remembered. Thank you John from a grateful wider world other than England.

  • Gordon

    Wasn’t some of his relationships with youngsters?

  • Tony

    He was prosecuted for consenting sex with another adult man. I’m sure that if he’d had relationships with minors then he would have been prosecuted specifically for that.

  • Alice

    I hadn’t known about Turing’s sexuality, persecution or suicide before I began to hear this story covered on Radio 4. Thank you so much for ensuring that I got to hear this part of LGBT history.

  • Jeff

    I still choke up when I think of that poor persecuted man so despairing he took his own life, especially compared to 2010 stories of gay young people bullied in America (the young fellow who jumped off the bridge in New York). The Gordon Brown apology letter was so good and so right. Hats off to you, sir, and thank you for helping spread Decency in the world.

  • http://sebastianconcept.com sebastian

    I’m glad you made all this movement.

    I always though well about Turing and the day I knew about his personal story I was very disappointed on how he was treated in his time.

    They screwed a bright mind because he didn’t fit in they stereotypes. Kind of the same of what germany was doing (with massively scaled drama) at that very time.

    The thing is, that merits counts. If a society kills merit (or treat associated irrelevancies as a disease up to the point to induce depression and probably suicide) then it’s killing its path to reach a better destination by screwing the key people.

    An apology is almost offending as attempt to repair the damage but it made us think again in this great man and his invaluable legacy which we’ll remember so well.