Geoffrey Pyke’s human history began with a miserable childhood and ended 54 years later when he took his own life in a boarding house outside central London. But in between, his audacious intellect and desire to make a difference led him on a life filled with adventure and invention.
In the introduction to his brilliant biography of Pyke, Henry Hemming, paraphrasing his obituary in the London Times, calls him “one of the most original yet unrecognized figures of the twentieth century. His genius was for coming up with radical ideas”.
Hemming abundantly demonstrates this by filling The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy with the amazing exploits of Pyke. At times, as with an adventure novel, the reader must suspend disbelief at numerous improbabilities.
Meanwhile, Pyke succeeded in modest ways to alter history. For example, his own appalling experience as a schoolboy inspired him to use his genius to earn a small fortune on the London Metal Exchange, then spend this to create a school to educate his son and other young children. The revolutionary ideas of Malting House continue to influence British education 85 years after it closed.
Perhaps more important, he was a prolific inventor, and during World War II worked to defeat the Germans. Several of his ideas live on – for example, in the form of Special Forces military units.
But he also was suspected of being a spy for the Soviet Union, and MI5 tracked him for years. So Hemming also traces the British Security Service’s attempts to catch Pyke, even as Pyke was working at the highest levels of the British and American governments, attempting to end the war. Hemming cleverly alternates his absorbing accounts of Pike’s accomplishments with intriguing chapters about what MI5 was discovering about him.
The book begins with a bang. Pyke, at 20, makes a perilous journey into the heart of Germany at the outset of World War I. It’s 1914, and Berlin, for a Cambridge University student of Jewish background, is an inhospitable place to be asking questions in barely passable German.
Pyke had managed to sell the London Daily Chronicle on a dangerous scheme to be their Berlin correspondent at a time when “[i]t was thought ... impossible to get into Germany as an Englishman.” Pyke does get to Berlin, where he is betrayed and arrested.
Pyke’s own book about his near-death experience at Ruhleben internment camp and his against-all-odds escape made him a bestselling author at a young age. It was an escape so inconceivable that it was what first put him on MI5’s radar.
Hemming begins here to detail Pyke’s method of reasoning his way to solutions – a system Pyke felt everyone could use. Hemming shows how “Every detail of this escape was rooted in Pyke’s refusal to take any assumptions for granted.” Pike “was convinced that he could come up with an answer if he came at the question in the right way.” (Later, Hemming details what he calls Pyke’s “Guide to Innovation.”)
As Hemming tells absorbing stories of Pyke employing his problem-solving techniques to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, weaken anti-Semitism, and prevent World War II, this reader found himself rooting wholeheartedly for Pyke. Though by many measures a genius, he also was an underdog. His radically fresh ideas, along with his quirky appearance and eccentric temperament, exposed him to disbelief. Meanwhile he was a Russian sympathizer, and this, in turn, won him years of attention from MI5.
One man who did understand Pyke was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who, as head of British Combined Operations during World War II, hired Pyke. Among the ideas Mountbatten and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill greenlighted was a scheme to use special vehicles to tie down German forces in Norway, and a plan to reduce enormous Atlantic shipping losses by building one or more aircraft carriers out of ice.
When Mountbatten was moved to a different command Pyke lost his sponsor, and ultimately his job. Several years later, dogged by an inability to match his previous successes, and perhaps due to health issues, he ended his own life. But not before he had given the world not just the benefit of many brilliant ideas, but a system for others to create their own brilliant ideas.
Spoiler alert: Hemming concludes that while Pyke “gave information to a Soviet agent on at least two occasions [he] was neither a communist nor a spy.”
David Hugh Smith is a writer from Brookline, Mass.