Money trouble: Alan Turing, Jane Austen, Queen Elizabeth - prominent people who featured on banknotes & stirred controversy
Turing, who was persona non grata in the UK for the better part of the previous century, will now be the face of the new £50 note.
Introducing the face of the new £50 note - the father of computer science, Alan Turing.” Find out more… https://t.co/zxNYQ3QrEK— Bank of England (@bankofengland) 1563186032000
Other contenders for the honour included Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Stephen Hawking. The posthumous recognition comes a few years after Turing received royal pardon from the Queen for his conviction for homosexuality in 1952. He was arrested for gross indecency after admitting to being in a consensual relationship with a 19-year-old man.
A Sessions Court, while upholding its conviction, held that Turing should undergo chemical castration. It entailed taking oestrogen injections to neuter his libido. Two years hence, he was found dead in his apartment with a half-eaten apple by his bedside table. The coroner's verdict ruled it suicide by cyanide poisoning. He was 41.
His untimely death notwithstanding, Turing is widely regarded as the father of modern computing. Modern encryption systems used by contemporary messaging platforms derive their origins from work undertaken by Turing, who during World War II, was tasked with breaking the Enigma code used by German U-boats in the Atlantic.
Military historians estimate that his work helped shorten the war by two years. His work on algorithms and artificial intelligence in the post-war years laid the foundations of many AI applications that we use today - including the text and speech recognition systems used in smart speakers and other such devices. The eponymous Turing Test is still used to determine whether a machine is "intelligent".
Who is Turing? He is thought of as the father of computer science and helped develop one of the first electronic co… https://t.co/ABhYdRqrdh— Bank of England (@bankofengland) 1563203377000
But despite his wartime heroics, Turing's trial divided public opinion - the extant laws of the time held that homosexuality was a criminal offence, and making an exception of Turing would go against the grain of the British judicial system. The new series of £50 notes - the highest-denomination of legal tender in Britain - featuring Turing will enter circulation by the end of 2021. The pink-tinted banknote will be made of polymer. However, Turing is not the only controversial figure to grace banknotes.
In April, the Japanese government announced plans to issue a new banknote featuring a Taisho-era industrialist who was instrumental in the economic exploitation of Korea. Eiichi Shibusawa, who headed the Keijo Electric Company, is believed to have used bonded labour during the colonial era to expand business in imperial territory.
The Keijo Electric Company later morphed into South Korea's state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation. The Shinzo Abe administration's revisionist approach to its imperial history ruffled feathers in South Korea, resulting in the two nations trading barbs at multilateral forums and imposing tariffs on bilateral trade.
Banknotes offer a canvas to honour national heroes, but sometimes, neglect on the part of central bankers can cause much embarrassment, and also pecuniary loss to the exchequer.
In 2005, the central bank of the Philippines realised to its chagrin that the 100 peso notes it had issued on Christmas Day had a major flaw: the name of the then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was misspelled as "Arrovo".
The bank was forced to issue an apology to the President, and the European agency outsourced to print the new notes was asked to halt production.
God Save the Queen
The British monarchy has also been at the receiving end of uncharitable portrayals on currency notes. The Bank of Canada issued dollar bills with the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to honour her coronation in 1953. The move was well received by the Canadian populace, the majority of which was favourably disposed to London.
But in the months following its release, people started writing in with complaints that, on close inspection, the image of the devil's face could be seen nestling in the monarch's hair. The bank took notice of this inconsistency, and new bills were issued, albeit without the devil in the queen's curls.
In 2013, Sir Winston Churchill replaced Elizabeth Fry as the face of the £5 bill to public outcry. The former Nobel Laureate, best known for leading the country through WWII, was deemed a great personage in the British tradition, but his inclusion meant that the Queen was the only woman to feature on banknotes.
The Queen soon got a female companion in 2017 when the writer Jane Austen replaced the naturalist Charles Darwin as the face of the £10 note. Austen's inclusion did not find favour with many Brits. Austen's oeuvre is still a part of the school syllabus in England, but evidence suggests that her work has not aged well.
Users posted deprecatory messages on microblogging platforms, accusing Austen of being "a bitchy marriage broker who never married". Some people attacked her for writing about the petty troubles and love lives of the gentry, ignoring the wider themes of British society. Moreover, the BoE was questioned for choosing yet another white figure, overlooking people of colour. Litterateurs argued that Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, or Mary Wollstonecraft would have been more appropriate.