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07 November

Mad Scientist


Biography: Geoffrey Pyke
by Kenneth L

Most of us are familiar with the old “mad scientist” stereotype: the wild-eyed maniac with a frizzy shock of hair and a bunch of test tubes bubbling over with sinister-looking liquids. Whether from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or an old low-budget flick, these characters are generally groundless inventions of writers’ imaginations. But, as with every stereotype, behind it lies a grain of truth.

This grain of truth would be British scientist and inventor Geoffrey Pyke, an eccentric in both lifestyle and appearance, as attested to by Lord Zuckerman, who called Pyke “not a scientist, but a man of a vivid and uncontrollable imagination.” Pyke held the firm and often criticized belief that man could reason his way through any problem, no matter what the circumstance. It instilled in him a stubbornness and perseverance that led to many imaginative and wholly impractical solutions for which he would gain some notoriety.

Born in 1893, Pyke studied at Cambridge University before going off to find adventure in the First World War. He persuaded the Daily Chronicle to fund a journey to Berlin, from where he promised to send back dispatches. When the Germans found him out, they figured he was a spy and imprisoned him in the Ruhleben Prisoner of War camp. His experiences there would later become the basis of a memoir titled To Ruhleben – And Back.

After the war he managed to make a small fortune on the stock market and settle into a semi-retired life while he began work on his inventions. During the Spanish Civil War, he outfitted Harley-Davidson motorcycles with sidecars as a way to carry food to the front and casualties back. He also came up with a way to save coal by coupling bicycle pedals to shunting engines.

With the onset of the Second World War, Pyke joined up with the British Combined Operations think tank, where he began to come up with the singularly oddball ideas that would make him famous. He came up with ingenious (but ultimately ignored) solutions for how British commandos might take heavily guarded Romanian oil fields through the use of dogs or women. He invented motorized sledges to be used in winter warfare and various applications for them.

But his most famous invention by far, and the one synonymous with his name, is Pykrete. A “mixture of water and wood pulp frozen solid”, he claimed it was stronger than ice, more stable, and less inclined to melt. And what would he do with this pulpy ice? Build an aircraft carrier, code-named Habbakuk, a half-mile long, with a 30-foot-thick hull made entirely of Pykrete, off of which torpedos would bounce harmlessly and which could be kept frozen by the use of pipes circulating cold air. A whole fleet of these Pykrete ships would be built, to make a nearly impregnable navy.

A prototype was eventually built and lasted an entire summer in a Canadian lake without melting, but by the time the project was ready to move forward the Normandy beach landings had already rendered it unnecessary. Funding was cut and plans scrapped, and Pyke began to sink into depression at the lack of appreciation for his work. He turned out another design, this being for a pipeline that would “pump” men and equipment from one location to another, that was rejected on the basis of irrelevance to the waning war, and he began to abandon inventing. For a time he aided the infant National Health Service in solving logistical problems and wrote a few articles in an attempt to gain the attention of influential people, but generally started to become more withdrawn and secluded.

One night during the winter of 1948, Pyke shaved his beard and downed a bottle of sleeping pills. His landlady found him dead the next morning. He was only fifty-four.

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