Cider Musings

Alan Turing and the apple

On Monday June 7, 1954 Turing died in his bed in Holly Mead, his house in Wilmslow, a town in Cheshire, where he lived close to his work at Manchester University, after eating an apple, from cyanide poisoning.

He was found in the morning by his cleaner.

These are the only certain facts concerning his dead which has been ruled by the coroner at the time as suicide but could be accidental or murder. He was only 42 years old. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science and the Turning machine which can be considered a model of a general purpose computer He is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science. He worked at the University of Manchester where he had a post since finishing his work for MOD at Bletchley Park where his work on the Enigna decoding was instrumental in eavesdropping on German communications. Alan graduated from King's College Cambridge. Had Turing lived a normal life span he would likely have contributed to further developments in computing.

When his body was discovered the next day by his cleaner, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide, it was speculated that this was the means by which a fatal dose was consumed. This suspicion was strengthened by his known fascination with Snow White and the severn Dwarfs fairytale especially the transformation of the Queen into the Witch and the ambiguity of the poisoned apple. 

An inquest determined that he had committed suicide, and he was cremated at Woking Crematorium on 12 June 1954. Turing's ashes were scattered there, just as his father's had been.

Some commentators have suggested that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the film of the tale noting that he took "an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew". This interpretation was supported in an article in The Guardian  written by Turing's friend, the author Alan Garner

Although that seems likely the rather unusual aspects of his death has questioned various aspects of the coroner's historical verdict which was perfunctory to say the least. The apple was not even tested! At the inquest, the coroner, Mr JAK Ferns declared: "In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next." What he meant by "of his type" is unclear but clearly says more about the coroner than Alan.

What is known about Alan is that he was a gay person when such behaviour was illegal. And he was under the observation of authorities and had submitted to anti androgen treatment (although that had ceased a year before his death). Turing found the State’s invasion of his privacy hard but several times is reported to be light hearted about it. Some commentators have even suggested that State agents could have killed him as gay people were targets of being turned by foreign secret services. Ironically as at the time MI5 was infiltrated by gay foreign spies, The Cambridge spy ring of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. Certainly in the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist campaign targeted scores of gay officials, explicitly linking homosexuality with subversion and Soviet sympathies, a process known as the "lavender scare". 

Alan frequently ate an apple in bed before sleeping and often did not finish it. He had ready access to cyanide experimenting with it for gold electroplating. He was known to be lazy with his equipment wiring it into a light socket and having been shocked several times! An alternative explanation for his death would be the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from the apparatus. Or placing the apple on a contaminated surface. At the time, Turing's mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, caused by her son's careless storage of laboratory chemicals.  

Alan was not depressed at the time of his death, found his work was stimulating and progressing well. His close friend Robin Gandy, who had stayed with him the weekend before, said that Turing "seemed, if anything, happier than usual". Turning who often wrote notes to himself did not leave a suicide note, but a list of tasks for the week ahead after the holiday weekend, June 7th was Whit Monday a bank holiday. 

The British Government acknowledged its legal and moral systems treated Alan badly. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown released a statement on 10 September 2009 apologising and describing the treatment of Turing as "appalling”. “While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him ... So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

Further more modern myths have evolved around the story of his death , given its lack of clarity. Firstly the symbolism of the apple. One scientific; one of Turing's predecessors at Cambridge, Isaac Newton started his thoughts on gravity by watching an apple fall from an apple tree, The Flower of Kent, he had at his home at Woolsthorpe near Cambridge ( and a descendant is planted outside Trinity College Cambridge. Cambridge). The apple trees are still alive.

Some people have suggested a symmetry if this was really suicide by biting a poisoned apple like Adam in the Garden of Eden and his subsequent persecution. ( Ignoring Alan's known interest in Snow White -see earlier).

Another urban legend the has arisen is that the Apple Logo with the separated bit in the "Bitten Apple" was to honour Alan. Steve Jobs is on record denying this “It isn’t true but God we wish it were". Oddly Issac Newton re enters the story. Apple Inc's first logo was not the bitten Apple but Isaac Newton!

Steve Jobs thought this was not clean enough so the "bitten Apple" was commissioned that setting off further debate about meaning. Was the bitten to do with a computer byte? Why a rainbow, The colours were chosen before rainbow was adopted by the LGBTQ+ community and since replaced by monochrome apples. More mundanely it was thought to symbolise the Apple being an early user of colour graphics. Look closely and also note the colours are not in the order of a spectrum!

So the mystery will never be solved but I do enjoy the association of a worlds greatest mathematician with an apple even if it is just because he enjoyed eating them! I do hope his death as accidental, not suicide and not sinister.