What makes the creative mind tick? How can unusual approaches to problems succeed, and what makes them fail? The Ingenious Mr. Pyke (2015) is a very engaging, inspiring, and sad biography of an odd thinker.
Geoffrey Pyke is best known as the instigator of Project Habbakuk, a wild WWII plan for the Allies to build warships out of ice (actually a compound of ice and wood pulp, dubbed “pykrete” after the inventor). Hemming situates that extraordinary idea in a lifetime of creative ideas. many of which failed or backfired.
Pyke’s career began with the First World War, which is what led me to the book (since I’m obsessively researching that period; for example). When war broke out in 1914 Pyke decided to best serve Britain by sneaking into the German Empire as a war correspondent and/or spy. Although he made it in past armies, fortifications, and an armed border, remarkably, he was caught in less than a week and interned at the Ruhleben camp for suspicious foreign civilians, located just outside of Berlin.
Pyke could easily have been stuck there for the war’s duration, or simply shot, but instead managed a daring escape. Back in Britain he published an account of the adventure, which became a bestseller.
He had… written a best-selling book, smuggled himself into Germany, become an amateur spy, faced execution in solitary confinement, converted to socialism and escaped from a German detention camp. All this by the age of twenty-four. (438)
After the war’s conclusion, Pyke turned his mind to… getting rich, of all things, while starting an innovative school, the former to pay for the latter. After some energetic study (and rooming with John Maynard Keynes!) he came up with a commodities trading scheme that made him a great deal of money for several years (124ff). This let him launch Malting House, a school which saw children as young scientists and investigators. Its emphasis on students as independent learners reminds me of Summerhill, which was opened roughly the same time. Blending Freudian psychology into the curriculum and pedagogy is definitely contemporary (134).
All of this fell apart in a few years, as his financial plan ran into opposition, and the school failed. Hemming observes sympathetically:
Geoffrey Pyke was bankrupt, he was being sued, his experimental school had closed, he was living in a nursing home and had been described as borderline insane. But he still had not reached rock bottom. During the winter of 1929, with the global economy entering meltdown, his wife left him. (153)
Yet Pyke didn’t succumb, but turned instead to a new cause for inspiration, and that took him forward for more than a decade: stopping the Nazis. Hemming takes us through a series of pre-war projects aimed at understanding and undermining antisemitism. WWI played a role, with Pyke being inspired by the Turkish Armenian genocide (162). He published articles and magazines against the fascists. He arguably helped create the Mass Observation sociological analysis project, in order to grapple with German attitudes (170). Pyke also raised money and invented tools and vehicles to support the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Hemming concludes that Pyke also gave some information and support to the USSR, which elicited MI5’s attention.
Once WWII broke out Pyke brazenly talked himself into a very high position, working with Mountbatten’s Combined Operations outfit. Hemming shares a good story about Pyke impressing the imposing British lord with a creative way to sink a battleship: changing the density of the water around it (253). At Combined Ops he invented pykrete, along with a strange, screw-powered vehicle for snow operations, not to mention a concept for sending materials and soldiers ashore for amphibious attacks through pipes. He also helped shape commando and special forces operations, an influence felt to the present day.
Pyke traveled to the US to organize his ice ships, and ran afoul of Vannevar Bush (373-4, for example) (if you don’t know the name, realize he helped come up with the technology you’re using now). Bush’s analysis of Pyke actually rings true, describing this very odd and creative man as “someone who has a contempt for channels of authority and ducks around them” (314).
Eventually Pyke left Combined Ops, having alienated many there, and convinced MI5 that he was a Soviet spy. Failing to come up with new schemes or traction for old, and vitiated by ill health, he committed suicide in 1948.
Hemming structures the book along chronological lines, framed by Pyke’s death and charges of being a Soviet agent. Each chapter appears as a how-to guide, like “How To Defeat Nazism” or “How To Succeed in America”. Along the way the book presents good quotes from Pyke, some of which are actually useful to the reader. For example,
Military people… don’t really plan at all. What they call planning is trying to adapt what there were taught in youth, with the minimum of alteration, to what they can see. That’s why they see so little. (279)
So what makes a creative mind like Pyke’s tick? Hemming thinks Pyke began by “thinking adventurously”, being unafraid to look foolish. Then he challenges accepted ideas with powerful skepticism, “to keep doing so until he found the one that did not ring true – for there was always at least one.” (432) Next comes stating the problem correctly. “He often found that tiny adjustments to the formulation of a problem could unlock a torrent of fresh ideas.” (433) That done, Pyke would scan history and the present, looking for inspiration and above all connections. “EVERYTHING IS IRRELEVANT TILL CORRELATED WITH SOMETHING ELSE.” (caps in original; 434) Pyke would further push at the problem with experiments, internal dialogues, reversing expectations (if the Nazis obsessed over “the Jewish question”, why not investigate the Nazi question?), and a willingness to rapidly try out new solutions.
There are also biographical forces which shape unusual minds like Pyke’s. Hemming shows a young man growing up under a series of blows and stresses, from losing his father early to being sent to military school, being abused for his Jewish heritage, and suffering from poor health. These events forced Pyke out of the ordinary.
Another lesson from Hemming’s biography: the creative mind needs champions and allies. Pyke’s escape from Germany in WWI required a fellow escapee.
His rise in WWII depended on Mountbatten’s patronage.
Mountbatten then set up a group of radical thinkers in Combined Ops, which became a space for Pyke and his creativity to thrive. (A desire for this is what leads some of us to social media)
So why do Pykes fail? For one, they can drive hierarchies mad. Vannevar Bush:
Everyone who has ever worked in a complex pyramidical organization recognizes that there occasionally appears somewhere on the ladder of authority a dumb cluck who has to be circumvented if there is to be any progress whatever… He can throw any organization, civilian or military, into confusion. His breed should be exterminated for the good of society. (314)
For another, the unusual nature of creative thought can remove the thinker from social interaction. Hemming saw Pyke’s passions as backfiring:
Pyke’s emotional fragility and heightened sensitivity to being sidelined appeared to make [working easily in a group] impossible. When he felt himself being marginalized he had a tendency to self-destruct, and would either cast around for a scapegoat or become difficult and behave, as one colleague put it, like an “awkward cuss.” (378)
Third, Pyke’s habit of challenging all accepted ideas threatened those who held them, of course.
The Ingenious Mr. Pyke is a tragic work, in that Pyke died with so many ideas defeated or unrealized, and largely unrecognized. That combination of inspiration and sadness together presents a powerful case study of extraordinary thinking and how it fares in the world.