Left: Hilary Bedford: ‘Turing was unknowable’, and right: Alan Turing. Picture courtesy of King’s College Archive
Published: 5 July, 2012
by ALICE HUTTON
HE looked like an ordinary clerk dressed in a grey suit.
Distant and alone, the Cambridge University graduate was a puzzle to his staff.
With his high-pitched voice and nervous laugh, he always appeared to be on the edge of something.
But as far as first bosses go, it is hard to beat Alan Turing.
When Hilary Bedford arrived at the British intelligence nerve centre at Bletchley Park estate in 1943 at the age of 17 she was catapulted into the daily presence of a man now regarded as one of the country’s greatest mathematicians; the father of modern computing and a secret code-breaker whose work saved countless lives during the Second World War.
Not to mention other exceptional leaps in artificial intelligence, biomedical mathematics, voice encryption machines and a seemingly incongruous near-appearance as a long-distance runner at the 1948 Olympics.
Mrs Bedford, now 86, is one of a handful of people still alive who know what it was like to work with one of England’s most enduringly mysterious geniuses.
There are so few remaining not just because it was so long ago or because the work Turing did was so top secret it was only declassified in the 1970s but also because in 1954, aged just 41, he committed suicide by biting into an apple laced with cyanide.
He had been chemically castrated with hormone injections by the government after being found guilty of “gross indecency” with another man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
This is Alan Turing Year, the 100th anniversary of his birth and a key focus for the national campaign to lift his criminal conviction.
And now Mrs Bedford, who received a medal from the government in 2009 for her code-breaking work and afterwards revealed her story exclusively through the New Journal having kept it secret from her family for six decades, is calling for the “horrendous tragedy” to be overturned.
But 69 years ago she didn’t know that Turing was to be, in her words, “the saviour of England”.
“Us young women were there to do the donkey work for the intelligentsia but we did not grasp the full extent of the importance of the work,” she tells the New Journal modestly from the comfort of her cosy dining room in Somers Town.
“We worked on these giant computers the size of a wall and they processed trillions of amounts of these jumbled codes intercepted from the Germans.
“The machines used to whirr and click and then stop when they had found a possibility which the code-breakers might be able to crack. Then we passed that information on to them.
“I had never seen a computer before and I thought: who is this quiet, young man who has built this giant thing that everyone says is so vital to the war effort?”
Sadly, she would never find out.
“Turing was unknowable,” she shrugs. “He might as well have come from outer space. He did not know how to talk to you like a normal person.
"His intellect was so much higher than everyone else’s that I could not have a conversation with him and that is the truth. He had to work alone because no one could keep up with him.
"He would hit on an idea and have to come and explain to everyone how it worked before they could do the leg work. His mind worked in a way we have never seen again. So I think he was rather lonely.
"He was dying to have a rapport with somebody but he couldn’t so he used to go back to Cambridge University occasionally just to communicate with people on his level.
“It is a hell of a business being a genius.”
Turing’s conviction for homosexual acts in 1952, after he admitted to police he had had a gay relationship, stripped him of his prestige and security clearance and left his career and reputation in tatters.
But, bound by the Official Secrets Act (1939), he was forced to keep silent about his great work. His cleaner found him dead at home two years later.
But despite an apology by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, Mrs Bedford feels that blame lies with Whitehall.
“His sexuality was openly talked about by his staff,” she says. “He did not seem especially secretive because he clearly wanted to be honest about himself.
“So when he was arrested there must have been some idiots in Whitehall who knew who he was and what he had done for his country – so why did they not protect him?
"Turing was the saviour of England and I would like to see him reinstated.
“He was a godsend and the government used him through the war to fight the Germans, emptied his brain of everything they needed and then threw him away.
“As far as they were concerned he no longer existed. "He was like a whisper in and out of history.”
For more information on The Alan Turing Year visit www.turingcentenary.eu/
WHEN World War II broke out in 1939 the Government Code and Cipher School recruited the best minds in the country who worked day and night to crack the codes of the German army, air force and navy, using Enigma machines.
England’s weapon against the seemingly unbreakable codes was Turing’s Bombe, an electro- mechanical “thinking machine” based in Hut 8 that was the precursor of the first modern computer Alan Turing would later build at Manchester University in 1948.
The Bombe helped pinpoint the locations of German U-boats who were sinking Britain’s food and arms supply ships.
Historians estimate this breakthrough shortened the war by two years.