Alan Turing's Triumphs And Tragedies Onscreen For All To See

I was truly stoked when I heard the buzz surrounding the new biopic of technology pioneer and war hero Alan Turing. The Imitation Game,  from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Kahn, Star Trek Into Darkness), received triumphant ovations and cheers at the Toronto International Film Festival this week and is already an early pick for a slew of Oscar nominations.
Turing is a legend. He’s a pioneer of modern computing and the father of artificial intelligence. The Turing Test, which measures the ability of a computer to respond to a human subject, was a staple principle in every coding class from the early days of Basic. And Turing’s technological brilliance literally saved the world from the armies of Fascism.
I’ve felt a connection to Turing’s work for long time – one, because of my interest in the history of philosophy of technology, but two, because of my deep Buffalo, NY Polish roots.
We never knew Turing’s true contribution to the war effort until the Enigma files were declassified in the early 1970s. That’s when news first went public that the Allies had been able to read the German Enigma-machine ciphers, and that Turing and a small band of brilliant British scientists constructed the world’s first functional modern computer to break the daily cipher. So often, it’s war that drives invention.
Enigma allowed the allies to prevail in the Battle of Britain, we knew about the invasion of Russia (a warning which Stalin chose to ignore), and we were able to successfully land in North Africa, Italy and Normandy. It’s a testament to Turing’s genius that the breaking of the Enigma code was such a closely guarded secret during the war, and for 30 years after.

Nazi Enigma machine
A German Enigma cipher machine on display at the Museum of Computer History in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Polish connection? It was the Polish resistance that successfully captured an Enigma machine, through great torture and loss of life, and delivered it to the Brits as the Nazis swept across the Polish plain. Buffalo during wartime was a center of US Polish culture. My grandfather was a Polish butcher on Buffalo’s East Side. Polish was spoken in his store. Our family name was changed from Zawieurcha to Storm a few months after the war ended.
Throw in the fact the film will be released in the U.S. by Harvey Weinstein – a former Buffalo resident who started his empire as the first name in the legendary Buffalo-area Harvey & Corky Productions company – and the whole story squarely hits home.
I recently toured the Museum of Computer History, where an actual Enigma machine is on display. It’s chilling. The photo is to the right.
When The Imitation Game hits theaters on November 21, it’ll be a day of celebration for those who’ve privately celebrated Turing’s contribution for decades. The ultimate irony, and the great sadness, is that Turing was doomed by the same dark forces he worked so hard to defeat. He was arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, which after the war was still illegal in Britain, and chemically castrated. He committed suicide 2 years later.
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