Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Pyke, Geoffrey Nathaniel (1894–1948)

Eccentric inventor who proposed, among other imaginative projects, that huge transports and aircraft carriers be made from ice. Born into a well-to-do family in London in 1894, Geoffrey Pyke studied at Wellington and then Cambridge, but he left school to pursue a career in journalism. As Reuters correspondent in Denmark during the summer of 1914, Pyke reported on German military and naval movements until he was ejected from that country. He subsequently found work with the Daily Chronicle as a correspondent within Germany. Reaching Berlin in late September 1914, Pyke was soon jailed as a spy, but he escaped the following summer and returned to London. By the early 1920s, Pyke's passions turned to the education of children, and he founded the Malting House School in Cambridge, which stressed laboratory sciences.

Pyke designed a modified Harley-Davidson motorcycle to help the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. After he became a scientific adviser to Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in British Combined Operations in March 1942, certain examples of Pyke's military-scientific ideas began to bear fruit, such as a prototype snowmobile known first as the "Plough" and then more commonly as the "Weasel." Pyke also proposed making ships of ice to serve as unsinkable aircraft carriers for antisubmarine warfare and amphibious operations support. Both Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill supported the proposal and authorized development of the idea.

The project was code-named habbakuk (an official spelling perpetuating an Admiralty clerk's erroneous rendition of the prophet Habakkuk's name). Pyke's group concluded that the ice ship would need to be half a mile long, with a hull 30 feet thick made of reinforced ice known as "Pykrete." This mixture of solidly frozen water and wood pulp was stronger and more stable than ice and less inclined to melt. Pipes circulating cold air would keep the hull permanently frozen.

A prototype 50-foot-long Pykrete ship was built at Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada, in spring 1943 and proved successful. The British were enthusiastic and put forth plans to build a fleet of these vessels, but the price tag was a staggering $70 million. The British could not afford this sum and the Americans thought the project impractical, and none were built.

After the war, Pyke helped the fledgling National Health Service solve staffing problems. Pyke, who battled depression all his adult life, committed suicide on the night of 21–22 February 1948.

C. J. Horn and Gordon E. Hogg


Further Reading
Avery, Donald H. H. The Science of War: Canadian Scientists and Allied Military Technology during the Second World War. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1998.; Lampe, David. Pyke: The Unknown Genius. London: Evans Brothers, 1959.; Mitchell, John. Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions. London: Harcourt, 1984.
 

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