King’s College, Cambridge Will Install Abstract Memorial to Alan Turing

Despite pushback, plans for a sculpture honoring the visionary mathematician have been approved

Alan Turing at King's College
Alan Turing’s class photo at King’s College, Cambridge in 1931 Courtesy of King’s College, Cambridge

In March 1935, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a letter to his wife about an exceptional young mind he had encountered at the University of Cambridge’s King’s College. “I had to lunch today the Fellowship candidate who seems much the cleverest on paper,” he wrote. “He is excellent—there cannot be a shadow of doubt … Turing [is] his name.”

The fellow in question was Alan Turing, a visionary mathematician who would go on to play a vital role in cracking Nazi codes and helping the Allies win World War II. For years, his contributions to the war effort remained classified, and at the time of his premature death in 1954, his legacy was marred by scandal. Turing was prosecuted for his homosexuality—considered a criminal offense at the time—and forced to undergo chemical castration.  

Turing’s reputation has been restored in recent decades, which have seen him celebrated as “the father of modern computer science.” Now, King’s College has been given approval to install a bold memorial to one of its “most notable students”: a towering, abstract sculpture, designed by the British artist Antony Gormley.

The sculpture will consist of steel slabs stacked 12 feet high, reports Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe. It takes inspiration from “the work and life of Alan Turing himself,” Adam Gardner, the deputy clerk of works at King’s College, wrote in a letter during the planning process. 

Cambridge’s city council approved plans for the memorial last week, despite some resistance to the project. Historic England, a government body that protects heritage sites, had argued that the contemporary sculpture would be at odds with the “architectural, landscape and aesthetic significance of the College, and result in some harm to its significance.” The art critic Waldemar Januszczak expressed similar concerns. “If there’s one thing contemporary art has proved over and over again,” he told the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris in 2020, “it’s that the mix of gothic and contemporary doesn’t work.” 

But other art experts disagreed, among them Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson ​​and Tate Modern director Frances Morris, who wrote letters in support of the project that were included in the planning application, reports Artnet. In the wake of the city’s council decision, Historic England said it “recognize[s] the importance” of the new sculpture, per the Telegraph’s Craig Simpson. 

Turing studied mathematics at Cambridge, graduating with a first class honors degree. Soon after, at age 22, he was made a fellow of King’s College, displaying “remarkable academic precocity,” as the New York Times’ Alan Cowell wrote in 2019. In 1936, Turing published “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”—a paper that, according to the college, “defined what we now know as the programmable computer.”

After completing his doctoral thesis at Princeton, Turing joined the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the cryptological headquarters of the British government during World War II. Under the direction of Turing and fellow mathematician Gordon Welchman, the team helped decipher the German Enigma device, which allowed the Allies to intercept German communications. This work, according to King’s College, “is estimated to have saved over 14 million lives, shortening the war in Europe by several years.”

During the postwar period, Turing continued to make pioneering contributions to the fledgling field of computer science. He devised, for example, what is now known as the “Turing Test,” a practical method for determining whether a computer is capable of “thinking.” 

But Turing’s conviction for “gross indecency” in 1952 barred him from engaging in secret work during the Cold War, leaving him feeling “excluded and embittered,” wrote the Times. He died of cyanide poisoning at the age of 41, in what the coroner deemed a suicide. 

With its location at King’s College, the new sculpture celebrates a fruitful time in a brilliant life cut tragically short. 

“It was in the College’s tolerant, open-minded and intellectual environment that Turing was able to live a fulfilled life both as a homosexual man and an abstract thinker, and we are enormously proud to acknowledge the significance of his unparalleled contribution to science and modern computing in this way,” says Michael Proctor, provost of King’s College, in a statement. “We hope the sculpture will be a great source of interest and pleasure to many.”