Watch Breaking the Code, About the Life & Times of Alan Turing (1996)

Updat­ed on Decem­ber 24, 2013: Yes­ter­day the British gov­ern­ment brought a sad chap­ter to a close when it final­ly issued a posthu­mous par­don to Alan Tur­ing, who was con­vict­ed in 1952 of break­ing laws that crim­i­nal­ized homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. The post you see below was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Feb­ru­ary, 2012, when the ques­tion of Tur­ing being par­doned was still up for debate. The film fea­tured above is still very much worth your while.

This week the British gov­ern­ment final­ly par­doned Alan Tur­ing. One of the great­est math­e­mati­cians of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Tur­ing laid the foun­da­tions for com­put­er sci­ence and played a key role in break­ing the Nazi Enig­ma code dur­ing World War II. In 1952 he was con­vict­ed of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. He killed him­self two years lat­er, after being chem­i­cal­ly cas­trat­ed by the gov­ern­ment.

On Mon­day, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Tom McNal­ly told the House of Lords that the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron stood by the deci­sion of ear­li­er gov­ern­ments to deny a par­don, not­ing that the pre­vi­ous prime min­is­ter, Gor­don Brown, had already issued an “unequiv­o­cal posthu­mous apol­o­gy” to Tur­ing. McNal­ly was quot­ed  in the Guardian:

A posthu­mous par­don was not con­sid­ered appro­pri­ate as Alan Tur­ing was prop­er­ly con­vict­ed of what at the time was a crim­i­nal offense. He would have known that his offense was against the law and that he would be pros­e­cut­ed. It is trag­ic that Alan Tur­ing was con­vict­ed of an offense which now seems both cru­el and absurd–particularly poignant giv­en his out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the war effort. How­ev­er, the law at the time required a pros­e­cu­tion and, as such, long-stand­ing pol­i­cy has been to accept that such con­vic­tions took place and, rather than try­ing to alter the his­tor­i­cal con­text and to put right what can­not be put right, ensure instead that we nev­er again return to those times.

The deci­sion came as a dis­ap­point­ment to thou­sands of peo­ple around the world who had peti­tioned for a for­mal par­don dur­ing the cen­te­nary year of Tur­ing’s birth. The Guardian also quot­ed an email sent by Amer­i­can math­e­mati­cian Den­nis Hejhal to a British col­league:

i see that the House of Lords reject­ed the par­don Feb 6 on what are for­mal grounds.

if law is X on date D, and you know­ing­ly break law X on date D, then you can­not be par­doned (no mat­ter how wrong or flawed law X is).

the real rea­son is OBVIOUS. they do not want thou­sands of old men say­ing par­don us too.

Efforts to obtain a par­don for Tur­ing are con­tin­u­ing. British cit­i­zens and UK res­i­dents can still sign the peti­tion.

To learn more about Tur­ing’s life, you can watch the 1996 BBC film Break­ing the Code (above, in its entire­ty), fea­tur­ing Derek Jaco­bi as Tur­ing and Nobel Prize-win­ning play­wright Harold Pin­ter as the mys­te­ri­ous “Man from the Min­istry.” Direct­ed by Her­bert Wise, the film is based on a 1986 play by Hugh White­more, which in turn was based on Andrew Hodge’s 1983 book Alan Tur­ing: The Enig­ma.

Break­ing the Code moves back and forth between two time frames and two very dif­fer­ent codes: one mil­i­tary, the oth­er social. The film runs 91 min­utes, and has been added to our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.


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Comments (12)
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  • F B Toast says:

    I actu­al­ly dis­agree. To be par­doned, one must first have done some­thing wrong. It is an act of clemen­cy or for­give­ness for a wrong­do­er. For the UK gov­ern­ment to par­don Tur­ing would actu­al­ly be to rein­force the posi­tion that he was in the wrong, which would be inap­pro­pri­ate.

    The appro­pri­ate response is actu­al­ly an unre­served apol­o­gy, which the gov­ern­ment has already issued.

  • Wael says:

    I agree with F B Toast. When I first heard about this issue, I thought it was about the gov­ern­ment apol­o­giz­ing to Tur­ing. How iron­ic.

  • JKop says:

    How could a par­don rein­force it? He was wrong accord­ing to the law, it was rein­forced by appli­ca­tion of that law, regard­less of a par­don. An apol­o­gy seems to be mere­ly moral where­as a par­don is also legal.

  • samir says:

    Alan only do the things in right way. He not only break the war or social code, actu­al­ly he gives a new dimen­sion of TRUTH. Accep­tence as a social­ly bound­ed man is time dependent.Now social secinero is change, and it has to be changed by time only.His valu­able opinion(code) we could not accept that time.But now we should PARDON.

  • Barry Cooper says:

    How fan­tas­tic that this peti­tion has aroused such inter­est in Tur­ing and his sci­ence. Thou­sands of peo­ple who nev­er knew about Tur­ing and still strug­gle to under­stand his lega­cy. And such inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions. Nice blog, actu­al­ly man­ages to avoid get­ting its Tur­ing facts wrong! Tur­ing Year is going to be great, and the peti­tion is a valu­able ingre­di­ent.

  • Chris Irwin Davis says:

    A par­don (with accom­pa­ny­ing expla­na­tion) could rec­og­nize that the law was immoral, which it was. Would you sim­i­lar­ly argue against the par­don of a run­away slave?

  • Greg Alder says:

    An odd deci­sion from a par­lia­ment filled with men who have always had a pen­chant for dress­ing in nap­pies and being spanked by latex-clad nan­nies.

  • Mark S. says:

    Well, they even­tu­al­ly reversed them­selves, as per this arti­cle in The Guardian:

  • Mark S. says:

    And anoth­er arti­cle on the sub­ject:

    Alan Tur­ing Par­doned By the UK For Being Gay, 50 Years Too Late

  • John JA Burke says:

    Law is not a sci­ence. It is a sys­tem of author­i­ty and worse, of pol­i­tics. It is appalling that the UK took so many years to “par­don” Tur­ing.

    The quo­ta­tion from the Guardian is quite curi­ous. Tur­ing was just­ly con­vict­ed because at that time, his con­duct vio­lat­ed the law.

    An imper­fect ana­log. On what grounds did the Nurem­berg judges issue judg­ments to kill human beings who pre­sum­ably who were act­ing con­sis­tent with munic­i­pal law, no mat­ter how mis­guid­ed that law might have been.

  • mushtaq.ail says:


  • lilly says:

    What a con­sid­er­ate and inclu­sive site, real­ly nice, thank you!

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