The Mischievous Acts of Alan Turing

Published: 2022-09-10

I've been slowly reading the biography of Alan Turing by Andrew Hodges, The Engima, and came across countless stories of Turing respectfully defying the orders of authority figures. One such story illustrates his attitude (and skill) the best. It's told by Peter Hilton.

Bletchley Park was where the cryptanalysis worked from and in their spare time, Hodges notes, "the authorities quaintly insisted upon the Bletchley analysts doing soldierly work. The heads of sections were exempt, but Alan conceived a passion for becoming proficient with a rifle...Alan enrolled in the infantry section of the Home Guard and to do so," recounts Hilton:

[Turing] had to complete a form, and one of the questions on this form was: 'Do you understand that by enrolling in the Home Guard you place yourself liable to military law?' Well, Turing, absolutely characteristically, said: T"here can be no conceivable advantage in answering this question "Yes"" and therefore he answered it 'No'. And of course he was duly enrolled, because people only look to see that these things are signed at the bottom.

And so he went through the training, and became a first-class shot. Having become a first-class shot he had no further use for the Home Guard. So he ceased to attend parades. And then in particular we were approaching a time when the danger of a German invasion was receding and so Turing wanted to get on to other and better things. But of course the reports that he was missing on parade were constantly being relayed back to Headquarters and the officer commanding the Home Guard eventually summoned Turing to explain his repeated absence. It was a Colonel Fillingham, I remember him very well, because he became absolutely apoplectic in situations of this kind.

This was perhaps the worst that he had had to deal with, because Turing went along and when asked why he had not been attending parades he explained it was because he was now an excellent shot and that was why he had joined. And Fillingham said, 'But it is not up to you whether you attend parades or not. When you are called on parade, it is your duty as a soldier to attend.' And Turing said, But I am not a soldier. Fillingham: 'What do you mean, you are not a soldier! You are under military law!' And Turing: 'You know, I rather thought this sort of situation could arise,' and to Fillingham he said: I don't know I am under military law' And anyway, to cut a long story short, Turing said, If you look at my form you will see that I protected myself against this situation.

And so, of course, they got the form; they could not touch him; he had been improperly enrolled. So all they could do was to declare that he was not a member of the Home Guard. Of course that suited him perfectly. It was quite characteristic of him. And it was not being clever. It was just taking this form, taking it at its face value and deciding what was the optimal strategy if you had to complete a form of this kind. So much like the man all the way through.

On Turing's work habits and routines clashing with those in authority, Hilton would recount:

But there again, he began to be beset by the bureaucrats who wanted him to be in at a certain time and work till five o'clock and leave. His procedure and that of many others of us, let me say, not only he, who were really fascinated by the work - would be maybe to come in at midday and work until midnight the next day. And then, the problem being essentially solved, go off and rest up and not come back for 24 hours perhaps .. they were getting much more work out of Alan Turing that way. But, as I say, the bureaucrats came along and wanted forms to be filled in and wanted us to clock in, and so on.

But Hilton was quite fond of Mr. Turing, explaining how he approached calculations both simple and complex:

In all these ways, he always tackled the whole problem and never ran away from a calculation. If it was a question of wanting to know how something would in fact behave in practice, he would do all the numerical calculations as well.

We were all very much inspired by him, his interest in the work but the simultaneous interest in almost everything else...And he was a delightful person to work with. He had great patience with those who were not as gifted as himself. I remember he always gave me an enormous encouragement when I did anything that was at all noteworthy. And we were very very fond of him.