An astonishing tale of undercover archivists, FBI involvement and the triumphant return to Britain of the stolen Turing documents
“He does not seem to have any aptitude for languages.” Alan Turing’s German teacher clearly had no idea that his struggling pupil would have such a significant impact on the world when he wrote his school report in 1931. His English teacher’s report wasn’t much better, criticising his handwriting and becoming frustrated at his lack of enthusiasm for discussions on the New Testament.
Alan may not have grasped German grammar and vocabulary, but his genius in the language of computing and codes quite literally transformed the world – and continues to do so with artificial intelligence.
Alan Turing is one of Sherborne School’s most famous alumni, attending the school from 1926 to 1931. However, until now, few people were aware that many of Turing’s personal documents – including school reports, his OBE and his PhD certificate –disappeared to the United States in a bizarre incident during the 1980s. On Tuesday 22nd August this year, a repatriation ceremony was held at Sherborne School when Special Agent Greg Werstch formally handed over the material which had been taken from the school’s Turing Archive. The fascinating collection of documents can be seen on the school’s website and provides a rich insight into the young Turing.
But how did they get to America in the first place, and what was the role of the FBI?
The Colorado connection
In 1965, the Turing family donated a number of Alan’s personal items to Sherborne School where they were kept in the archives. Thousands of miles away in Colorado in the 1970s, Julia Schwinghamer became fascinated by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 Space Odyyssey – and in particular with HAL 9000. When she looked into the development of computers, she discovered Turing, and subsequently developed an obsession with him. This led to her taking a trip in 1984 to Sherborne School, by which time she had legally changed her surname to Turing. She managed to convince staff at the school that she was a close relation and she was allowed to “borrow” some items and she also took others without anyone knowing.
At this time, the work of Alan Turing was not widely recognised – not least because his top secret work on the Enigma Machine and codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War Two was only declassified by the government 11 years ago in 2012.
On 10th September 2009, 55 years after Turing’s death, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown released a public apology on behalf of the UK Government for the way the mathematician, codebreaker and computer scientist had been punished in the 1950s, because of his homosexuality.
When the film about Turing’s life, The Imitation Game, was released in 2014, Julia began to realise the significance of anything connected to Alan Turing. Then, in 2018, the University of Boulder, Colorado, planned an exhibition of famous people in science. Julia offered them her Turing items for display – but the archivists were suspicious.
Diligent archival community
The archival global community is responsible for preserving documents – they work closely together with constant communication networks across international boundaries.
When the Boulder University team was offered a collection by someone claiming to be Turing’s relative, they contacted Sherborne School – where archive staff confirmed the items had gone missing from their archive in the 1980s. Julia Turing was arrested by the FBI.
When Alan Turing’s mother donated his reports and papers to Sherborne School, she had included a detailed inventory which was used to identify and confirm the missing documents.
The possessions were seized in Colorado by the US Dept of Homeland Security Investigations. Department of Justice Assistant United States Attorney Laura Hurd and her team were instrumental in the return of the archives, with the assistance of Metropolitan Police Inspector Alan Seldon and an investigator at the US Embassy in London working for the Homeland Security Investigations agency Dipesh Dattani, who also attended the recent ceremony in Sherborne.
Headmaster Dr Dominic Luckett said: ‘Few people have had a greater positive impact upon the world than Alan Turing. ‘Although denied due recognition before his life came to a tragic and premature end in 1954, the extraordinary nature of his achievements is now finally being understood and celebrated.‘His crucial work as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park and his enormous contribution to the development of computing and artificial intelligence were not merely of vital practical significance at the time but continue to underpin many of today’s most important intellectual and technological advances. As a school, we are intensely proud of our association with Alan Turing and want to do all we can to preserve and promote his legacy. ‘As part of that, we take very seriously our responsibility to look after those items in our archives which relate to his time at Sherborne School and his subsequent life and work. ‘I am most grateful to all those, both in the US and those closer to home, who have worked so hard to ensure the safe return of these precious artefacts.’In a fitting conclusion, it is thanks to Alan Turing and his work on computers that it is now possible for anyone to view digital versions of archival documents online – including the Alan Turing page on the School Archives website here.