By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
It is the most recognizable logo in history: The Bitten Apple.
More than the Nike Swoosh and the Coca-Cola Wave, the Apple Icon, a silhouette of an apple with a bite out of it, is simple and evocative. It stands for elegance and innovation, simplicity and ease of use.
But the Apple Icon holds a dark secret.
It is 1940, and Britain is dying.
Cut off from Atlantic shipping routes used to supply her mounting war effort, the island nation is strangled by the Nazi U-boat death grip.
Germany’s deadly submarines stalk the cargo ship convoys in lethal underwater “wolf packs”. It is a mystery how they communicate, how they find the convoys and how they mass for their deadly attacks. They hunt the sea with impunity, sinking ships at will with their torpedoes.
The war is desperate now. An inspirational (and inebriated) Winston Churchill holds Britain together with courageous speeches of defiance, but little else.
The truth is, Britain is losing the war. The Nazis have begun an air campaign over London and Hitler plans an invasion across the English Channel to take Britain in a year.
But there is a chance. It comes from one pastoral English cottage, a mansion actually, insulated by 50 miles from the blitzkrieg of London and distantly removed from the killing fields of the North Atlantic.
A 26-year old lad, awkward and acned, works here in Huts 4 and 8. His name is Alan Turing.
Turing is an introvert who lives between his ears. His brain is a vast universe that sets order to chaos by slowly and methodically deducing patterns in the seemingly random.
The Nazi U-boats communicate using a secret code generated by an even more secret machine, the “Enigma” machine. Until now, it’s secrets have been impenetrable.
Enigma operates as a kind of typewriter that sends impulses through a series of wires attached to wheels that are changed in a given order. If you know the order of the secret wheels and have your own Enigma machine, you can decode a message. If not, the secret message remains obscured in a seemingly random mathematical vault that appears impossible to crack.
Except to young Alan Turing and his cadre of code breakers.
Turing started with the basic. Through a lethal labyrinth of espionage commanded by a man named Ian Fleming some things are known about the Enigma machine. For instance, an Enigma can not code a letter into an identical letter, it has to code to a different letter. This mathematical fragment is a chink in the cryptic armor of Enigma, and it is all young Turing needs to begin prying open the vault door of the Nazi code.
Turing had, at the age of only 15, extrapolated π (pi) out to thirty-six decimals without using calculus. He deduced other means to predict its mathematical progression.
Now he must do the same in the codified abyss of the Enigma.
Alan Turing is a weirdo. He hides caches of silver but misplaces the secretly coded maps showing their hiding places. He wears a gas mask outdoors because of allergies, especially when riding his bicycle. He uses one teacup kept locked so no one else can drink from it.
But in his mind, through the vastness of quantum physics and mathematics, the chaotic slowly succumbs to order. Enigma and her code is merely science and, given enough time and enough cups of tea- lots of tea- the secrets of Enigma will be revealed to Alan Turing.
But Britain may not have enough time for Turing to work out his algorithms. In the dreadful game of chess that war is, while the pawns burned and bled, the rooks and bishops at Bletchley Park fight the larger war with slide rules and ciphers.
There are clues and other geniuses, it is not- by any means- all Turing’s work. And they work tirelessly within their brains to find a way to stop the U-boats.
There is not one breakthrough, but several laced together by Turing and his cadre. Instrumental in the deductions is an apparatus designed by Turing called a “bombe” or a “computing machine”. A computer.
On January 20, 1940 the first Enigma message is solidly broken- a German air force (“Luftwaffe”) message. The team turns their attention to the slightly more complex naval Enigma machine, and it soon gives up its black lace façade of secrets.
Now the allies can read the U-boat messages. And sink them. The war in the Atlantic takes a dramatic turn, with tonnages of vital cargo delivered the Royal Navy turns the U-boat hunters into the hunted almost overnight. Hitler is forced onto his back foot as Great Britain begins punching well above its small nation weight and the U.S. contemplates joining the war effort.
Alan Turing played a structural role in breaking the Enigma code. His invention of the “bombe”, one of the very first computing engines, led to much more advanced computers. In 1945 Alan Turing developed what is considered the first electronic digital computer.
Turing was gay. And in the late 1940’s and ‘50’s not only did this carry a stigma in general society, it was actually unlawful. In 1952 he was convicted of illegal sex acts with another man. He was given a choice of sentences, prison or chemical castration by a strong cocktail of pharmaceuticals. He chose the later. The chemicals ravaged his body and tortured his health. His life became retched under the enforced medical punishment.
On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing bit into an Apple. An Apple laced with cyanide. His housekeeper found his body the next day. Turing had committed suicide.
The Apple with the bite out of it lay next to him on the floor, and its icon now adorns the front of the computer I type this on, and the phone you are reading this on.
Many years ago I stood in front of an Enigma machine in the basement of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There is a small but fascinating museum there, filled with artifacts of the espionage trade. A close friend showed me the machine, told me the story of Alan Turing. It was well before the Apple icon would become ubiquitous.
Recently several books discussed Turing’s contributions to history and computing, most notably author Nicholas Rankin’s outstanding new book, Ian Fleming’s Commandos and P.W. Singer’s new book Wired For War.
Fleming would go on to create a fictional, iconic spy character named James Bond. In his serialized James Bond stories there was a department of Bond’s intelligence agency, MI6, called “Q Branch”. Q Branch, or quartermaster branch, is the gadget shop of MI6, and it is staffed by an awkward genius, a character likely inspired in part by Alan Turing.
The link between Alan Turing and the Apple logo remains steeped in lore. Special Reporter to CNN, Holden Frith, reported to CNN in 2011 that, “The logo on the back of your iPhone or Mac is a tribute to Alan Turing, the man who laid the foundations for the modern-day computer, pioneered research into artificial intelligence and unlocked German wartime codes.” But Apple has not acknowledged that Turing’s suicide by poison apple is the inspiration for the logo, despite the fact that it is often depicted in a rainbow livery, in possible homage to the flag of the gay community.
What would have happened if greater tolerance and understanding had lengthened the life of Alan Turing? What innovations would he have created? What secret wars would he have won? Turing’s untimely passing under the stigma of intolerance is one of the great tragedies of modern society, and we will never know what could have been if he had lived out his life to an even longer and more remarkable end.