Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

15 Facts About Blackbeard

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Extremely adept at capturing ships and plundering loot, the pirate Blackbeard struck fear into the hearts of New World seamen—and these days, he's unquestionably the most famous pirate of all time. You can find Blackbeard statues in North Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A brand of men’s hair dye was named after him. And the city of Hampton, Virginia throws an annual pirate festival in his honor. If you want to find out about Blackbeard, this list’s for you, matey.

1. BLACKBEARD WAS AN APPROPRIATE NICKNAME.

Captain Edward Teach or Thatch, who was known as Blackbeard the Pirate
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Like many pirates from his era, Blackbeard is a figure with mysterious origins. Some say he was born in the English port of Bristol around 1680; others argue that he was born in Jamaica. He used to call himself Edward, but it's unclear what last name he used. Most primary documents refer to him as Edward Thatch (although the spelling isn’t consistent, and it may have been an assumed name anyway), but the Boston News-Letter and other contemporary newspapers tended to call him Edward Teach. The origin of the moniker Blackbeard, however, is easier to figure out. It was derived from eyewitness testimonies: People who had seen the pirate firsthand often described him as a tall, thinly built man with a long black beard.

2. HE MAY HAVE DABBLED IN PRIVATEERING.

For centuries, governments in Europe and elsewhere would hire private warships to further their own interests (think of it as piracy by commission). First, they’d approach the owners of heavily-armed vessels and give them legal permission to attack or plunder enemy nations. After recruiting a private ship, the government would hand the crew a “Letter of Marque”—essentially instructions for the sailors, which included detailed information about who could be attacked and under what circumstances.

These mercenaries were known as privateers. In the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson (likely a pseudonym) asserted that, as a young sailor, Edward Thatch joined a privateering crew sailing out of Jamaica (then a British colony). No one’s been able to verify this claim, but it’s certainly plausible. Plenty of great pirates started out as privateers before they went rogue and turned on their homelands. Mr. Thatch wouldn’t have been an outlier.

3. THE PIRATE BENJAMIN HORNIGOLD IS OFTEN CITED AS HIS MENTOR.

In December 1716, merchant captain Henry Timberlake gave a deposition about a pirate attack he’d recently survived—one of the first written documents to mention Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch.

Timberlake reported that a few days earlier, his 40-ton brigantine had been attacked and plundered by two pirate sloops near the island of Hispaniola. One of those ships, he said, was commanded by somebody called Edward Thach [sic]; the other sloop’s leader was the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, a well-known outlaw with a sizable fleet. According to Timberlake’s disposition, Thatch and Hornigold divvied up his booty—which mostly consisted of food—between their crews.

It’s unknown if the two pirates actually worked together. Some historians think Blackbeard was a lieutenant of Hornigold’s at the time, but it’s also possible that the pirates were behaving independently, and that Thatch was never subordinate to Hornigold. Regardless, as a maritime legend, Blackbeard was about to come into his own.

4. HIS FLAGSHIP WAS AN EX-SLAVE VESSEL.

By the autumn of 1717, Blackbeard had established himself as the head of a small fleet. On November 28 of that year, two of his sloops came across La Concorde, a 200-ton slave ship with 16 cannons. The French vessel was on its third slave trading expedition across the Atlantic with hundreds of Africans on board, 100 miles from Martinique, when Thatch’s men caught sight of it. Despite its numerous cannons, La Concorde was an easy target: Blackbeard’s two sloops had a combined total of 150 crewmen, and La Concorde had fewer than 60 sailors in its crew, over half of whom were sick with dysentery and scurvy. Thatch seized the ship and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It remained Blackbeard’s primary ship until June 1718, when it was wrecked on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.

5. IT’S SAID THAT HE USED TO PUT FLAMING MATCHES UNDER HIS HAT.

Blackbeard’s fame as an outlaw was solidified after he seized at least 15 ships near the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities in the fall of 1717. Frightening stories were told and retold by those who’d survived an encounter with him. The tales grew tall. Blackbeard was said to adorn himself with flaming matches or candles, and according to 1724's A General History, “In time of action, he… stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.”

Of course, these stories about Blackbeard's fiery antics might be pure folklore—but the image is compelling!

6. BLACKBEARD DOUBLE-CROSSED THE SO-CALLED “GENTLEMAN PIRATE.”

Stede Bonnet was the wealthy, 29-year-old owner of a Barbados sugar plantation who—for reasons unknown—abandoned his family and became a pirate in 1717. Bonnet’s first move was to (legally) purchase a sloop, which he soon fitted with 10 cannons. Next, he hired a crew and started raiding vessels along the eastern seaboard. But although his men were experienced, Bonnet himself knew almost nothing about seafaring. And then he met Blackbeard.

By that point, Thatch was already a criminal celebrity. Soon, the two forged a partnership and started taking ships in the West Indies. Blackbeard, a worldly fellow, quickly deduced that his new partner—who had been nicknamed the Gentleman Pirate—was just a rookie. Bonnet’s flagship was a vessel called The Revenge. After some persuasion, he allowed one of Blackbeard’s men to be put in charge of the ship.

When the Queen Anne’s Revenge was wrecked on the sandbar, Blackbeard returned The Revenge to Bonnet. Likely seeking a pardon for some crimes he'd previously committed, Bonnet left the ship and went ashore. While he was away, Blackbeard stripped The Revenge of its supplies and sailed off. Bonnet vowed that he’d get even, but the Gentleman Pirate never saw Thatch again.

7. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, HIS FLAG DID NOT LOOK LIKE THIS.

blackbeard's flag

Fred the Oyster, Wikimedia Commons // CC0

Some picture books, magazine articles, and TV documentaries will tell you that Blackbeard’s ships used flags with a heart-stabbing horned skeleton on them. But historian E.T. Fox begs to differ. In his book Jolly Rogers: The True History of Pirate Flags, Fox points out that there’s no record of Blackbeard ever using this design. One newspaper report from 1718 said that Thatch’s ships flew “Black Flags” and “Bloody Flags,” but the writeup doesn’t go into detail. According to Fox, the horned skeleton design didn’t appear in any English-language document until 1912, when it was featured in the journal Mariner’s Mirror, incorrectly tied to a pirate named John Quelch. In all likelihood, the horned skull flag was invented during the early 20th century and only started being associated with Blackbeard as late as the 1970s.

8. IN 1718, HE BLOCKADED THE PORT OF CHARLESTON—AND DEMANDED MEDICAL TOOLS.

In May 1718, Charleston (then called Charles Town) found itself at the mercy of Edward Thatch. With four vessels and 400 men, Blackbeard effectively sealed off the city’s harbor; ships that tried to enter or leave it were plundered. On one of these ships, the Crowley, was Samuel Wragg—a member of the colony's governing council—and his young son. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Blackbeard demanded a chest of medical supplies. Within a few days, he got his wish. The city grudgingly handed over the equipment and Thatch sent his prisoners back unharmed.

9. HE TRIED TO SETTLE DOWN IN BATH, NORTH CAROLINA.

After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard found himself in a conciliatory mood. He and his (diminished) crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden and asked for an official pardon. Eden granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath; he reportedly married a local woman and fielded numerous dinner invitations from neighbors who saw him as an object of great curiosity.

But as the saying goes, old habits die hard, and despite his attempts to fit in, a normal life just wasn’t in the cards for Blackbeard. One day, Thatch set sail out of Bath and came back into port with a loot-filled French ship. Thatch swore that the vessel was abandoned at sea when he found it, a story that was understandably hard to believe.

10. HE THREW A WILD BEACH PARTY WITH ANOTHER INFAMOUS PIRATE.

In September or October 1718, the dreaded captain Charles Vane and his crew of 90 sailed into Bath with the goal of recruiting Blackbeard for an attack on Nassau. Vane and Thatch threw a huge party on Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard’s men had set up a private campsite. The drunken festivities reportedly lasted for days on end. Afterwards, Vane and Thatch parted ways; they would never cross paths again.

11. IT WAS VIRGINIA’S LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WHO ORCHESTRATED BLACKBEARD’S DEMISE.

Governor Eden and Blackbeard had a cordial relationship—so cozy that it raised eyebrows. The governor’s critics wondered if Thatch was secretly providing him with stolen goods, and other colonies weren’t too happy about the fact that a notorious outlaw was now living freely on American soil.

Shortly after Thatch and Vane’s epic bash, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, hatched a plan to rid the continent of Blackbeard once and for all. In the late fall of 1718, he sent two ships under the command of naval officer Robert Maynard down to North Carolina. The expedition’s legality was questionable at best; Spotswood had decided to invade a separate colony without consulting its government [PDF], after all. But he persisted anyway.

Maynard’s ships reached Ocracoke Island on November 21, 1718. Arriving at dusk, he saw that a sloop of Thatch’s called the Adventure was anchored nearby. The next morning, Maynard’s men quietly approached. They were seen and attacked by the pirates, and a battle broke out. When the fighting erupted, there were only 18 crewmen aboard the Adventure. Blackbeard was present also, but it should be noted that he’d been drinking heavily the night before. Though the pirates put up a good fight, Maynard prevailed—and Thatch was killed.

12. HIS SEVERED HEAD WAS PUT ON DISPLAY.

Once the dust had settled, Maynard counted five bullet holes and 20 sword-made cuts in Blackbeard’s dead body. On his orders, Thatch’s head was removed and the rest of his corpse was tossed into the ocean. (According to another account, Blackbeard was killed when one of Maynard’s men cut off his head.) Maynard then tied the severed remains to one of his bowsprits. The gruesome prize was taken back to Virginia, where Spotswood had it mounted on a tall pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers. It stayed up there for a few years as a morbid warning to other pirates.

13. ONE OF HIS SUBORDINATES WAS WRITTEN INTO TREASURE ISLAND.

painting of pirate duel

Newell Convers Wyeth, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Israel Hands is generally considered Blackbeard’s second in command. Unlike Thatch, he didn’t participate in the battle with Maynard. When the fighting started, he was over in Bath—possibly recovering from a leg injury (according to A General History, he was shot in the leg by a drunk Blackbeard). Later, Maynard’s men captured Hands, who testified against some of his own former crewmates in court. Thanks to his damning testimony, Hands was allowed to go free. Robert Louis Stevenson went on to give the man a role in his novel Treasure Island. The book casts Hands as the wily first mate of Long John Silver. Jim Hawkins winds up killing him in self-defense.

14. THERE’S NO PROOF THAT HE BURIED ANY TREASURE.

Tales of buried treasure are legendary, but there’s only one confirmed case of a pirate who actually did bury some treasure (that pirate was William Kidd, who in 1699 hid precious loot worth a million dollars in today's money under the sands of Gardiners Island, New York, which was soon dug up again to be used against him in trial). Did Edward Thatch try to bury a chest or two of his own? Probably not—none of the available evidence suggests that Blackbeard ever stored any loot underground.

15. THE WRECKAGE OF THE QUEEN ANNE’S REVENGE WAS REDISCOVERED IN 1996.

Credit for the find goes to the private research firm Intersal, Inc. Off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina, their team found a sunken ship on November 21, 1996. It appeared to match the description of the long-lost Queen Anne’s Revenge. At the end of a protracted inspection process, in 2011, experts confirmed that the wreckage was indeed Blackbeard’s former flagship. More than a dozen cannons have been recovered from the site, along with a bounty of other artifacts. These treasures include a medical syringe and a scrap of paper that presumably came from a 1712 adventure book. The booty did not include a lot of gold: Only a few grams of gold dust were discovered.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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