Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter Alan Turing Wrote in “Distress” Before His Conviction For “Gross Indecency”

A pio­neer of com­put­er sci­ence, Alan Tur­ing’s name comes up in near­ly every con­ver­sa­tion about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. His “Tur­ing Test” pur­ports to indi­cate whether and when a machine has acquired intel­li­gence and abil­i­ty indis­tin­guish­able from that of a human, and his work with the Bletch­ley Park cryp­tog­ra­phy group dur­ing WWII helped the British break the Enig­ma code used by the Nazis. Those who came to learn about Tur­ing from the recent biopic The Imi­ta­tion Game, with Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch star­ring as the tor­ment­ed math­e­mati­cian, know this part of his life in par­tic­u­lar, as well as the part of his life that trag­i­cal­ly led to his ear­ly death at age 41.

Tur­ing was gay, but forced to hide it because of British law. In 1952, he was con­vict­ed of “gross inde­cen­cy” for his rela­tion­ship with anoth­er man. Before plead­ing guilty to the sup­posed offence, Tur­ing wrote the let­ter below to his col­league and friend Nor­man Rout­ledge.

Employ­ing a dark sense of humor and sign­ing off “Yours in dis­tress,” he gives every indi­ca­tion that he is fear­ful not only for him­self, but for the fate of his work. Just above, see Bene­dict Cum­ber­bach read the let­ter, which begins with a para­graph of small talk from an obvi­ous­ly ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion then abrupt­ly turns to the trou­ble at hand.

My dear Nor­man,

I don’t think I real­ly do know much about jobs, except the one I had dur­ing the war, and that cer­tain­ly did not involve any trav­el­ling. I think they do take on con­scripts. It cer­tain­ly involved a good deal of hard think­ing, but whether you’d be inter­est­ed I don’t know. Philip Hall was in the same rack­et and on the whole, I should say, he did­n’t care for it. How­ev­er I am not at present in a state in which I am able to con­cen­trate well, for rea­sons explained in the next para­graph.

I’ve now got myself into the kind of trou­ble that I have always con­sid­ered to be quite a pos­si­bil­i­ty for me, though I have usu­al­ly rat­ed it at about 10:1 against. I shall short­ly be plead­ing guilty to a charge of sex­u­al offences with a young man. The sto­ry of how it all came to be found out is a long and fas­ci­nat­ing one, which I shall have to make into a short sto­ry one day, but haven’t the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a dif­fer­ent man, but quite who I’ve not found out.

Glad you enjoyed broad­cast. Jef­fer­son cer­tain­ly was rather dis­ap­point­ing though. I’m afraid that the fol­low­ing syl­lo­gism may be used by some in the future.

Tur­ing believes machines think
Tur­ing lies with men
There­fore machines do not think

Yours in dis­tress,


Tur­ing had long wres­tled with his sex­u­al­i­ty, but had also long come to terms with it at the time of the let­ter. As the Cum­ber­batch-star­ring film dra­ma­tizes (with some license), over ten years ear­li­er, dur­ing the war, he had attempt­ed to mar­ry the only female mem­ber of the main Bletch­ley group, Joan Clarke, then con­fid­ed his sex­u­al­i­ty to her.

Clarke was most­ly non­plussed and Tur­ing broke off the engage­ment. You can get much more insight about Turing’s strug­gle, and what he was actu­al­ly like, from two of the women who worked with him, includ­ing Clarke her­self in an inter­view above. Below, anoth­er of the Bletch­ley team—one of the thou­sands of “Bletchleyettes”—named Olive Bai­ly dis­cuss­es her impres­sions of Tur­ing. To learn much more about his life, watch The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Tur­ing, in two parts on Youtube.

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Tur­ing, Bril­liant Math­e­mati­cian and Code Break­er, Will Be Final­ly Par­doned by British Gov­ern­ment

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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