“I detest America”: Long-lost Alan Turing letters found in Manchester University filing cabinet
Alan Turing is not someone about whom we have reams of personal information. Given his prosecution for gross indecency aged 41, as chronicled by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, it’s hard not to blame the heroic mathematician for being a tad withheld.
A recent discovery at the University of Manchester, however, serves to shed new light on the codebreaker, who famously cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code during World War Two. Professor Jim Miles, professor of computer science at the university, stumbled upon the collection of nearly 150 letters when clearing out a filing cabinet.
Whilst the letters are hardly salacious – they contain, amongst other things, responses to academic invitations, a handwritten draft of a BBC radio program on AI called “Can machines think”, and a host of insights into the mathematician’s working practices – they give us rich new seams of information about Turing.
One particular correspondence reveals Turing’s scathing views of America. Invited to speak at a conference in the States in April 1953, he replied haughtily: “I would not like the journey. I detest America.” Written to King’s College London physicist Donald Mackay, the response is something of anomaly, and further elucidation on his disdain for the country is not proffered. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting nugget of information about someone who played such a seminal role for the Allied team in defeating Nazi Germany.
Professor Miles describes to The Guardian how when he came across a paper file with “Alan Turing” scrawled across it, his initial response was one of incredulity: “When I first found it I initially thought: ‘That can’t be what I think it is,’ but a quick inspection showed it was a file of old letters and correspondence by Alan Turing.”
Turing served as the deputy director of Manchester University’s computing laboratory from 1948, with the epistolary exchanges dating from early 1949 to his contested death in 1954. Before taking up this post, the Cambridge mathematician had broken the Nazis’ enigma code during the Second World War, and received an official posthumous pardon from the Queen in 2013 for his homosexuality conviction.
The correspondence has been catalogued online by Manchester University archivist James Peters, who reiterated their importance, stating that, whilst the letters “add an extra dimension to our understanding of the man himself and his research […] As there is so little actual archive on this period of his life, this is a very important find in that context. There really is nothing like it.”
I guess you could say that – eminently true to form – Turing has succeeded in quashing the ‘Enigma’ surrounding him.
(Images: The University of Manchester; Chris Skoyles, used under Creative Commons)