The Day Alan Turing Came Out

Originally published in Retro Spec.

© 2010 Leonard Richardson. Licensed under CC-BY 3.0.

Outer Alliance interview with the author.

Back in the 70s computer magazines were full of programme listings, heavy on the numbers and uppercase letters. My fingers itch with muscle memory. LET this, PEEK here, POKE there. See a dog chase a cat, a submarine dodge depth charges. Or the one with all the patterns. Ooh, Turing’s program, that beautiful one from the advert.

These days my fingers have it easier. They type into a search form:

model iv advert alan turing

The ICON accepts this without visible effort and produces a video image. In the video Alan Turing sits at a desk, hidden behind the static that veils anyone recorded from broadcast onto old analog tape.

Turing pretends the camera is not there. He has just covered a sheet of paper with formulæ. He sets his pencil down and turns to the black and orange box on his desk. A keyboard and a computer, in one. He types genteelly, two-fingered, but rapidly. He types one final line of BASIC code.

The announcer makes his smooth, honed pitch. “There’s doing maths,” he says. Turing ignores him as well. “And then, there’s living maths.”

Turing reaches for the RUN button in the corner and my breath catches. This is the moment when I always found that I had mistyped a line and had to go through the magazine listing again, looking for errors. Turing does not worry. It’s an advert. If he typed that last line wrong, they’ll do another take. No reason not to be bold.

The screen moves. Cellular automata dance across the screen, slowly blossoming into the patterns on a peacock’s tail feathers, rippling like the scales on a fish. All in black and white.

The camera zooms in on the unit itself and Turing disappears from the advert. “It’s the new Model IV,” says the announcer. “The first computer anyone can take home for under one hundred pounds. Another brilliant idea from Mycroft.”

I leave the video running to see if there is a stinger, some amusing shot of Turing in his role as the nation’s absent-minded uncle. There is none: Turing has left the set to collect his cheque. The video ends. My fingers move again:

turing cellular automata basic listing

“Alan Turing was gay, you know,” says B.

“Aya?” B. has been looking over my shoulder while I drink deep the spring of nostalgia. Even my casual ICON browsing is not safe.

“Oh, yes. Gay as a... well, the usual similes don’t apply, do they? Gay as a field mouse who happens to be extremely gay.” B. rattles the ice in his glass, right next to my ear.

“Do you know this, or is it speculation? He’s pushing computers on kids in 1980. They’d never hire a gay man for that.”

“’s absolute fact. He came out a few years before he died. There was a pride march in Manchester in the late eighties. The first really big one, I think. And who’s that shuffling down the middle of the street with the crowd but Alan Bloody Turing. They must have thought he was lost.

“He never said more than ten words about it afterwards, but yeah. Look it up. Absolute fact.”

alan turing manchester pride march

The ICON sends me a still photo, and there he is. His beard now shaved, hands folded on a cane, wearing a three-piece suit and a medal instead of a friendly computer-selling jumper. This time he sees the camera, and is looking into it.

An open secret, as such things often were back then, between academics. Safe enough, but unsatisfying. And then one day—what is he afraid of, retired, a war hero, what can they do to him? One day Turing leaves his house in Manchester and walks up a street he walks all the time. And because of who he walks with on that day, communicates a datum.

His fellow marchers in T-shirts, looking at him or at the photographer. Wondering if his fame might combine with their numbers to offer protection from whatever happens next. Surprised by his archaic dress, as if he were posing for an old-fashioned portrait, not realising that photographs these days are developed in colour.

This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Friday, October 09 2020, 00:00:37 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Saturday, April 01 2023, 16:00:17 Nowhere Standard Time.

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