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Who was Alan Turing?

The story of a tragic genius

Visit Sackville Gardens next to Canal Street and you will notice the statue of a man named Alan Turing sitting on a bench. Who is he and why is he there?

Turing is one of Manchester's most famous gay figures. The story of how he helped defeat the Nazis in World War II but was shunned by a country unable to accept his homosexuality is a reminder of how far society has developed in the years since.

A notable mathematician and computer scientist, Turing worked at the UK's codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire during World War II, developing methods for understanding German ciphers. After the war his work included developing one of the first designs for what later became the computers we know today.

However, it was when he became deputy director of the computing laboratory at the University of Manchester in 1949 that he carried out some of his most enduring work. He developed software for one of the earliest stored program computers, the Manchester Mark I. He studied the field of artificial intelligence and developed an approach to work out whether a human or a computer programme was answering certain questions in a test. This 'Turing Test' is still used to this day.

Sadly, Turing's time in Manchester also included tragedy. In 1952 he was convicted of gross indecency after admitting to conducting a sexual relationship with another man, something that was still illegal in the UK at the time. His conviction ruined his reputation and he was barred from continuing his consultancy work for UK codebreakers.

In 2009 the UK government issued an apology for the treatment Turing received. This was too late for the man himself, however. On 8 June 1954 he was found dead in his bedroom. It is thought that he killed himself by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide.

In tribute to this great man, the statue in Sackville Gardens sits holding an apple. What more might he have achieved if he had lived in more enlightened times?

Image credit: Bernt Rostad

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