The eccentric engineer
E&T on the life and death of Geoffrey Pyke - a 'tragic genius' who wanted to build aircraft carriers from ice and snow.
It won't have escaped your notice that it was a bit chilly recently. This is a great boon for headline writers, a great trial for people with places to get to and great fun for those of us with children or childish interests, of which I have both. My thoughts have turned, quite naturally, to making things from snow - snow balls, snowmen and snow angels. But not aircraft carriers. That's the difference between me and tragic genius Geoffrey Pyke.
Pyke was one of Britain's greatest eccentric engineers, a man who cut his inventive teeth as a First World War prisoner of war making a methodological study of how to escape - something thought largely impossible but which he triumphantly did. He arrived home a hero and promptly arranged for the details for his escape plan to be sent to his fellow prisoners in false-bottomed boxes. They assiduously ignored these and stayed put, proving that escaping is impossible for those who don't want to.
At the end of the war, Pyke turned his unusual, analytical mind to the problem of making money and came up with a typically risky but successful solution. He would mathematically analyse movements in the commodities markets, mainly metals, and through a series of brokers (so no-one knew how large his placements were) hedge against the former. In other words, he'd run a hedge fund, which he did very successfully until it went bankrupt, which is a phrase that seems to have a certain resonance again at the moment.
But Pyke wasn't a grasping plutocrat, far from it. He'd invested all his money in his own school in Cambridge which was designed to encourage junior school children to learn by themselves: encouraged by adults but not lectured by them. Sadly, this went bust along with the business.
If Pyke was down he was not out. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he put his inventive mind to combat the rise of fascism by arranging the export of dried sphagnum moss to make cheap wound dressings.
A larger war was by this time in the offing and just before it broke out Pyke had another idea. He would arrange for a team of opinion pollsters to go to Germany disguised as a golfing tour. In their matches they would casually ask locals what they thought about the war. Results would be collated and sent to Hitler to persuade him that his people had no stomach for it. It was a brilliant idea but, sadly, the war broke out before the results could be sent.
Pyke had now hit a purple patch in his unorthodox thinking, and his strangely wonderful ideas began to flow more freely. He posited the forerunner of the skidoo, which would allow small numbers of commandos to travel quickly around occupied Norway, tying up thousands of slow-moving Wehrmacht troops trudging through the snow. All this thought of snow and ice gave Pyke an even greater idea. How do we protect the Atlantic convoys? Aircraft. But how to get them to the mid-Atlantic? Aircraft carriers. But they needed to be very large and hence they were obvious, sluggish targets. Even the largest were not large enough to carry most fighting planes. The answer? Ice. Project Habbakuk (the spelling comes from a Civil Service typo) was born. Pyke's ships would be twice the size of the largest liners, but made of ice. Torpedoes would find them almost impossible to destroy and holes could be repaired with water.
Having taken the idea to the refugee Austrian chemist Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, Pyke suggested that ice mixed with wood powder would be even stronger and better resist deformation (or creep) and melting. This new material, christened Pykrete as it was as strong a concrete, soon got the blessing of Winston Churchill, allegedly after Lord Louis Mountbatten threw a lump of the material in his bath. A small test rig was built on Patricia Lake, Alberta, Canada and proved to be a great success. Pyke returned from Canada elated but events were again overtaking him.
The U-Boat threat to the Atlantic convoys - the ideal location for an iceship - had faded and the action was turning to warmer and less suitable waters. The improved range of aircraft also made vast mid-oceanic landing strips less necessary. So Pyke's greatest idea was shelved. He did suggest smaller versions, perhaps as temporary harbours, but the Mulbery scheme was employed instead.
After the war, Pyke was a committed campaigner against the death penalty and personally helped to humiliate the UK government into supporting the newly-formed United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, which they had done their best to ignore.
At his death, he was working on modeling how the country would pay for its nascent National Health Service, but a pervasive sense of gloom seems to have come over him. His innovations were widely ridiculed in the press - he was the 'mad boffin', whose ludicrous ideas only demonstrated their inventor's distance from reality. On 21 February 1948, he took a fatal overdose of barbiturates and died in his sleep.
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Planes landing on Pyke's aircraft carrier would have had to operate in frosty conditions.
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