The Story Of How A Typo Helped Lead To The End Of World War II Is Almost Too Surreal To Believe

U.K. science comedian (yes, that’s really a thing) Florence Schechter took to Twitter on Monday to share a mind-blowing World War II story that quickly went viral. The story involves a member of the Alan Turing (played so brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) code cracking bunch at Bletchley Park named Geoffrey Tandy.

It seems Tandy got his spot on Turing’s team through a rather comedic error but once there could not be allowed to leave. So he made the best of things, apparently waiting patiently for his moment, a chance to flex his very particular skill set, and he got it!

We’ll just let Schechter tell it because she’s kinda like damn good at it:

While Schechter’s story is true (she provided references that for the most part totally checked out—I mean, c’mon! She IS a science comedian!) there is one minor discrepancy in the retelling of this story.  It wasn’t really a typo.

To say it all came down to a typo is a bit of stretch, in the same way that the original piece from The New Republic in 2009 (which Schechter references in her tweets) admitted it was a bit of an overstatement to call their post “How Lichens Won World War II.”

A quote from Tim Flannery’s review of Dry Storeroom No. 1, a history of the British Natural History Museum, explains the real mix up. 

His great moment came when a functionary in the Ministry of War became confused between cryptogamists and cryptographers, and recruited Tandy to the British center for signals intelligence at Bletchley Park, where some of the world’s brightest minds were working on cracking the German Enigma Code. During Tandy’s stay at Bletchley Park several sodden notebooks holding vital clues to the German code were recovered from sunken U-boats, but they seemed damaged beyond recovery. Tandy, however, knew exactly what to do, for the problem was not so different from preserving marine algae. Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy dried the sodden pages and made them readable, an important contribution to deciphering the Enigma Code.

It wasn’t so much confusion over an errant letter that landed Tandy at Bletchley Park as it was the misunderstanding of a term by the War Office. 

Tandy was a cryptogamist (someone who is skilled in cryptogamic botany) but the code breakers that worked at Bletchley, including Turing, were called cryptanalysts. A cursory search of the American Cryptogram Association yields not a mention of “cryptogamists” but refers to cryptanalysis and cryptanalysts. 

The says:

Whereas cryptographers write encryption systems, and cryptologists study them, cryptanalysts like Turing break them.

Tandy has another claim to fame that The Guardian’s review of the Dry Storeroom No. 1 shared back in 2008: 

Another was Geoffrey Tandy, a friend of T.S. Eliot, the first man to broadcast Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and an authority on marine algae, or seaweed, one of a class of plants known as cryptogams, which means capable of “hidden marriages”. Tandy’s reputation as a cryptogamist was wildly misunderstood by someone in the War Office, who despatched him to Bletchley Park to work on the cryptograms, or hidden messages of the Enigma code. 

Friends with T.S. Eliot, the first guy to broadcast Eliot’s children’s poetry book (the basis for the musical Cats!) and he worked with Alan Turing and his code breakers to help bring World War II to an end. And all this from a dude who basically knew how to dry papers and stalked algae most days? 

Proof you never can tell who will make the biggest contributions to our world—or who might just make the next episode of Drunk History…

H/T: Twitter, The New Republic, The Guardian