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Cash, Diversity, and Inclusion: The Turing Note in the U.K.

Categories : Cash connects people, Cash contributes to education, Cash is a public good
July 6, 2021
Published in : Banknotes, Central Bank, Diversity, LGBTQ+, Social Inclusion, UK
This LGBTQ+ Pride month, the Bank of England launched a new £50 note depicting Alan Turing, mathematician, cryptographer, and father of modern computing, unjustly treated for being gay.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Columbia University in the City of New York

The £50 note is the highest denomination note in the United Kingdom. On June 23rd, 2021, the Bank of England launched a new £50 note featuring British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954), coinciding with the 109th anniversary of his birth and LGBTQ+ Pride month. That day, the Bank flew the Progress Pride flag in its Threadneedle Street building.

With the launch of the Turing note, the Bank has completed the transition away from paper to polymer or plastic. In February 2021, there were 35.7 million £50 notes in circulation, with a total value of £17.9 billion, or 22.3% of the value of all notes in circulation (see Graph 1). The £50 paper notes will be accepted in payments through the end of September 2022.

Graph 1. United Kingdom: Value of Sterling Pound Notes in Circulation per Denomination, 2010-2021 (£ million).

Although few ATMs supply £50 notes, “with the new smaller design and extra security features, in time we may see more people using them for payments and therefore more ATMs dispensing them,” according to John Howells, the chief executive of the Link ATM network.

Alan Turing, a Mathematician, and Father of Modern Computing

The £50 note celebrates the life and work of Alan Turing, a British mathematician whose work greatly advanced the field of computing. In 2019, Governor Mark Carney chose Alan Turing after a selection process that received 227,299 nominations covering 989 eligible characters and a shortlist of 12 options. At the time, Carney said, “Turing is a giant on whose shoulders so many now stand.”

Turing graduated in 1934 with a first-class honours degree in mathematics from King’s College in Cambridge University. His 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem),” sought to assess whether a theorem was provable or not with a universal (and then theoretical) machine, a class now called Turing machines. The paper proved foundational as it formalized computing before physical computers existed. He then earned a Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1938.

During World War II, he led a team of mathematicians and cryptographers commissioned by the U.K.’s Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) to break the Enigma code used by the German armed forces to encrypt their communications. The first Enigma messages were cracked in 1940, using a code-breaking machine known as “Bombe.” At its peak, Bombe processed 89,000 coded messages per day. The feat inspired The Imitation Game, a 2014 movie with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. Turing also aided in developing an encryption system for conversations between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Turing also designed and built real computing machines at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Manchester University, including the automatic calculating engine (ACE). He also innovated in artificial intelligence and came up with a way to test whether computers could think – now better known as the Turing Test.

Alan Turing, a Victim of His Era – Now a Gay and STEM Icon

King George VI honoured Turing as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his service during World War II. However, he died a disgraced “criminal” – simply for being a gay man when Great Britain penalized homosexuality severely.

In 1952, Turing was persecuted and convicted of gross indecency for having a romantic relationship with a 19-year-old Manchester man. It did not matter that Turing was a “national asset,” according to Hugh Alexander, head of cryptanalysis at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency. As an alternative to prison, Turing underwent chemical castration with female hormones to suppress his libido. Disqualified by his criminal record from working for a governmental intelligence agency, Turing died two years later by suicide at 41.

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in the United Kingdom in 1967, the U.K. government only apologized for Turing’s treatment in 2009. At the time, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was, under homophobic laws were treated terribly.” In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II posthumously granted him a royal pardon.

According to Dr. Jan Theodoor Janssen, the NPL’s chief scientist, the public might not know too much about Turing’s legacy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as “he was prosecuted for being gay and was badly treated by the establishment at the time.”

Money Speaks Volumes: Rehabilitating Turing’s Legacy

On the release, Bank Governor Andrew Bailey said, “I’m delighted that Alan Turing features on the new polymer £50 note. Having undertaken remarkable codebreaking work here at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he went on to pioneer work on early computers, as well as making some ground-breaking discoveries in the field of developmental biology. He was also gay and was treated appallingly as a result. Placing him on this new banknote is a recognition of his contributions to our society, and a celebration of his remarkable life.”

GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said, “Alan Turing’s appearance on the £50 note is a landmark moment in our history. Not only is it a celebration of his scientific genius which helped to shorten the war and influence the technology we still use today, it also confirms his status as one of the most iconic LGBT+ figures in the world. Turing was embraced for his brilliance and persecuted for being gay. His legacy is a reminder of the value of embracing all aspects of diversity, but also the work we still need to do to become truly inclusive.”

Cash, Diversity, and Inclusion

“This is only a foretaste of what is to come and only the shadow of what is going to be” – Alan Turing in an interview to The Times on June 11, 1949, a quote now included in the £50 note

With the £50 note launch, Turing joins several individuals from historically excluded groups in banknotes across the world. The examples are thankfully abundant now, and they include Viola Desmond (1914-1965), a Black Canadian civil rights activist, depicted in the CA$10 banknote launched in 2016; Sir Apirana Ngata (1874-1950), a Māori Member of Parliament now portraited in the NZ$50 note in New Zealand since 2016 as well; and David Unaipon (1872-1967), an Australian Aborigine author and activist depicted in the AU$50 note since 2018.

In the United States, plans to include Black American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) in the US$20 note were first announced by the Obama administration in 2016. However, in May 2019, the Trump administration announced that the Tubman note would not be launched until at least 2028, yet another battle of the culture wars it fought against liberals and progressives. However, just three days into its tenure, the Biden administration announced it would accelerate plans to include Tubman in the redesigned US$20 note.