The Inge­nious Mr. Pyke: Inven­tor, Fugi­tive, Spy

Hen­ry Hemming
  • Review
By – July 20, 2015

Geof­frey Pyke (18931948) was just start­ing Cam­bridge when his account of his dar­ing escape from a World War I Ger­man intern­ment camp became a best­seller. A pure Eng­lish freak,” as he called him­self, Pyke then taught him­self the basics of the com­modi­ties mar­kets, to finance the pro­gres­sive school he cre­at­ed to edu­cate his son. When a lit­tle too much free-love destroyed his mar­riage, Pyke went to ground, only re-emerg­ing to tack­le the rise of fas­cism, which became his life’s focus. Instead of just rais­ing funds to fight Fran­co, he devised an indus­tri­al scheme to enable British work­ers to rebuild ambu­lances and motor­cy­cles for the Span­ish Repub­li­cans. Watch­ing the rise of fas­cism in Ger­many, Pyke trained Gallup-style under­cov­er inter­view­ers to reveal pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion to Hitler. When Britain went to war, Pyke joined Mountbatten’s think-tank, devis­ing snow­mo­biles for occu­pied Nor­way, ice­berg-ships for the U‑boat infest­ed Atlantic.

Pyke’s unique cre­ative process was key to the suc­cess of his many het­ero­dox schemes. He believed it wasn’t so hard find­ing the solu­tion to a prob­lem, as iden­ti­fy­ing the cor­rect prob­lem in the first place. Some­times this meant turn­ing a prob­lem on its head: if the Nazis were study­ing the Jew­ish Ques­tion, Pyke would study the Nazi Ques­tion. Rear­rang­ing per­spec­tives on a prob­lem opened doors to new avenues for research, which, pre­dictably, would be reject­ed by all but the rare ear­ly adopter” types. Alas, if it was hard for Pyke to find cre­ative sup­port dur­ing the War, sus­pi­cions of his Sovi­et con­nec­tions left him with even few­er allies in the Cold War that followed.

Author Hem­ming han­dles Pyke’s sui­cide grace­ful­ly, end­ing the book with a nuanced appre­ci­a­tion of Pyke’s very real con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy — from under­wa­ter oil pipelines to Pykrete — and to our under­stand­ing of the cre­ative process itself. While this biog­ra­phy cov­ers a lot of ground, it is a com­plete­ly absorb­ing read. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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