The Mad Scientist Who Fought The Nazis With Public Opinion Polls
What he discovered could have ended the war.
The 21st century has created a new species of celebrity — people who get famous overnight by going viral, then spend the rest of their days clinging desperately to the limelight. Think Chewbacca Mom, or Ken Bone.
But the spectacle of overnight fame isn’t actually a new thing, and one English inventor rode his 15 minutes to some seriously weird places.
Geoffrey Pyke dropped out of law school during World War I to become a war correspondent, traveling to Berlin with a stolen passport to file dispatches about German civilian life. He was caught after just six days there and imprisoned in the Ruhleben internment camp.
Pyke nearly died from double pneumonia during the camp’s harsh German winter, but when the weather warmed he and some other British inmates hatched a daring plan to escape. In June, he and Edward Falk hid underneath some nets in a shed until nightfall and then hoofed it to Berlin, eventually making it back to allied Denmark and freedom.
Upon returning to England, Pyke was hailed as a hero — the first English civilian to enter German enemy territory and leave intact. He used his fame to hit the lecture circuit and made some investments. One of his most interesting ventures was founding a nursery school in his house called the Malting House School that let children direct their own education. It closed after five years when Pyke lost his fortune and he disappeared from the public eye.
That is, until a decade later when a certain Adolf Hitler began talking about uniting the continent under the Third Reich.
Pyke’s experiences in Germany made him an expert as Hitler started ramping up his military aspirations at the end of the 1930s. Faced with another World War — an event the pacifist Pyke dreaded — he hatched a plan that was equal parts daring and bizarre.
While in Berlin during World War I, Pyke noticed that most of the civilians didn’t support military expansion. He set out to prove to Hitler that the same was true of his generation of Germans. His method: public opinion polling. Pyke would send specially-trained volunteers abroad to gauge the sentiment of the people, and then present Hitler with a detailed statistical survey of his findings that would hopefully deter him from declaring all-out war.
Because international relations were already tense, Pyke’s surveyors couldn’t be open about their mission. His solution? They would all pretend to be golfers. So, outfitted with clubs and caddies, nearly a dozen men traveled to Germany to hit the links and interrogate the populace.
Pyke got the results he wanted — unsurprisingly, the average German wasn’t too excited about another World War — but they came too late. By August of 1939, Europe was on the brink of all-out conflict and he pulled his undercover golfers home.
The time for diplomacy was at an end, and Pyke turned his prodigious imagination to the art of warfare. He had a particular interest in transportation, devising a screw-propelled snow vehicle for use on the slopes of Norway. That odd invention brought him to the attention of Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, who brought Pyke onto his staff.
His next exploit is probably his most notorious. Faced with the problem of traditional boats freezing (and then sinking) in the frigid Arctic waters, Pyke thought outside the box and suggested making entire ships out of ice instead.
After significant research, Pyke’s team came up with a material made of ice and shavings of wood that remained frozen for an exceptionally long time. They called it Pykrete, after its inspiration. It was as resistant to gunfire as concrete, making it a very attractive material for Project Habbakuk, the British navy’s attempt at building a floating island to use as a command center for use in the Mid-Atlantic.
A prototype ice ship was built on Patricia Lake in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, but before it was completed the Pykrete project was shuttered due to out-of-control costs and advances in aircraft technology.
After the war’s end, Pyke turned his inventive mind to other problems in society, with typically dismal results. His suggestion to power railway lines with several dozen men pedaling bicycle motors didn’t go over so well. He became increasingly frustrated that society didn’t treat his ideas with the respect they deserved.
In 1948, Geoffrey Pyke committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills, his last great escape from a world that was never ready for him.