Last year, the British government granted an export licence for a notebook that belonged to Alan Turing, the famed code-breaker and father of modern computing. It is an extraordinary artifact, a product of his wartime thinking on the concept of a universal language.
I have spent the past few days speaking to some of Britain’s most knowledgeable Turing experts. None of them even knew of the notebook’s existence until Bonhams, the auction house, announced earlier this year it was being sold in New York, much less had a chance to study it before it left the UK.
So the question is this: If mathematicians who have studied Turing’s legacy and relatives, such as Sir Dermot Turing who is a trustee of the Bletchley Park Trust, haven’t had a chance to examine its contents, how can the British government be sure it wasn’t losing a vital part of our history forever?
That is a question that Lord Sharkey raised in parliament. He was told the government had consulted experts – but their identities had to remain confidential.
And so it is that the most important Turing manuscript ever found – the only one in his own handwriting – was allowed to slip out of the country last year. On Monday it is expected to sell for “seven figures”, as the Bonhams people so coyly put it.
The only hope is that a generous and wealthy Turing fan does the decent thing and returns it to the UK for display, perhaps at Bletchley Park. (It has happened before.) Or at least scans it and makes it available for study.
The worst case is that it disappears into a private vault and is never seen again.
Now imagine this was a piece of art. Is it possible to imagine a painting of this importance slipping out of the country and then turning up for sale in New York without anyone even knowing?
Imagine the outcry. Imagine the public outrage.And then the fundraising. The Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund give out millions of pounds each year to save paintings for the nation – including a Van Dyck for £6.34m.
Now if we can afford that sort of money for a painting by a Dutchman, surely we can afford a measly million quid for a document that represents one of Britain’s most brilliant minds?
The two cultures live on.
Turing’s legacy was neglected for too many years. Now that we have woken up to his extraordinary contribution to the Twentieth Century (with The Imitation Game, for example), isn’t it about time that we did more to protect what is left of his scattered papers?
And in the meantime I’ll be hoping that a dotcom billionaire or a geeky banker does the right thing on Monday.