More Fake News: Geoffrey Tandy and the Algae That Saved Civilisation Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

More Fake News: Geoffrey Tandy and the Algae That Saved Civilisation

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Ah, those viral headlines. How they fill our heads with nonsense. How can one sort the wheat from the chaff?

In April 2018, Google Search sprouted these headlines, like dandelions in spring grass:

The Amazing Story of How a Typo Helped End World War II
How a Typo Helped Geoffrey Tandy End WWII
Why the Story of an Accidental WWII Codebreaker is Going Viral
How One Simple Typo and an Expert in Algae Helped Britain Win World War II (Well done, the Mirror.)

The gist of this 'viral' story is as follows: during the Second World War, Geoffrey Tandy, an expert in mosses, lichens, and algae at the British Museum's Natural History department, was assigned to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park   – by mistake. Apparently, a bureaucratic error misread 'cryptogam' (a technical term for mosses, lichens, algae, and such) as 'cryptogram'.

As the tale goes on, Tandy spent a miserable couple of years trying to make himself useful among the cryptographers, until – behold the ways of a Britain-loving Providence – the military came into possession of a very important enemy codebook. The problem was, the codebook was severely waterlogged... oh, if only someone knew how to preserve wet objects... Tandy sprang into action. This was his moment of glory! Preserving marine specimens was his speciality! He sent to the British Museum for the correct materials and went to work. Civilisation – and more importantly, Britain – was saved. It all goes to show... something.

This anecdote is a mixture of truth and bunkum, of course. It is based on the inability of certain people to understand academic humour – which, admittedly, can be somewhat on the dry side. The myth is perpetuated by the culture of copy-and-paste 'journalism'. And, as usual, it conceals a much more interesting story underneath its tawdry façade. The real question is, who was Geoffrey Tandy, and what was he doing at Bletchley Park? We'll explain the silly joke, while we're at it.

Geoffrey Tandy, TS Eliot, and Cats

Geoffrey Tandy is generously described by his friends as 'eccentric'. This stunning photo, entitled 'Geoffrey Tandy Draped in a Bedsheet', might give you an idea why. This photo is preserved in Australian government archives, maybe in case he came back. It was taken on the occasion of a British scientific exploration of the Great Barrier Reef. Tandy was there, and wrote a paper, 'The Great Barrier Reef Expedition, 1928-1929', G Tandy, Natural History Magazine, 2: 82-92 (1929). This was likely to be exciting to naturalists. His travels also led Tandy to pen the thrilling 'A Summer at the Dry Tortugas Laboratory, Florida', G Tandy, Natural History Magazine, 3: 145-156 (1932).

Tandy was a successful academic. He advanced to the post of Head Curator of Botany. Did his exalted position fill him with joy? It did not. He was bored. He longed for better things. One reason for his dissatisfaction was his friendship with TS Eliot, the famous poet. Tandy scribbled verses amongst his botany notes, and even wrote scripts for the BBC. In the 1930s, he had even read some of Eliot's now-famous cat poems aloud on the BBC airwaves. And why not? Eliot was a frequent visitor chez Tandy, and godfather to one of his daughters. The first draughts of the cat poems were often shared with the Tandy children. Tandy apparently found literary effort more appealing than cataloguing lichens, and who can blame him1?

War Service

Tandy became part of the Bletchley Park cryptography team, not because of a 'typo', but because he was an accomplished linguist. As part of section NS VI, Tandy helped with the translation of decrypted messages. The linguists' job was to figure out the meaning of technical terms uncovered by the cryptographers. It was useful work.

It is true that Tandy's expertise in preserving a waterlogged codebook recovered from a sunken U-boat came in handy. The intelligence was invaluable. Tandy's work helped in breaking the Enigma code and undoubtedly helped shorten the war. The accomplishments of the Bletchley team were noteworthy.

What About That Joke?

Those in the know – such as Geoffrey Tandy's relatives – have speculated that the genesis of the viral story is a misinterpretation of a rather academic joke. At the British Museum, Tandy specialised in cryptogams, plants that have no true flowers or seeds, such as lichens, mosses, and algae. They were called 'cryptogams' because for a long time, nobody knew how they reproduced – hence, 'crypto', hidden, and 'gamy', marriage. Linguists have a terrible habit of making arcane puns: they joked that Tandy, who was not an expert in cryptograms, got involved with the cryptographers through a typo.

Tandy was nicknamed 'Admiral' by his co-workers. This was also a joke. His real rank was Commander.

Where Did All the Headlines Come From?

The obvious answer to this question is, 'from lazy journalists.' But a politician may also have been at fault. On 18 October, 2012, the Rt Hon William Hague delivered a speech at Bletchley Park. Among other remarks, he said this:

One of my favourite stories about Bletchley Park, which Iain drew to my attention, was the decision by the Admiralty to post one Geoffrey Tandy here because he was believed to be an expert in cryptograms or messages signalled in code. In fact, he was an expert in cryptogams, which are plants like mosses, ferns and seaweeds. Happily he turned out to have excellent advice on preserving documents rescued at sea, which just goes to show how useful wide expertise can be. Although it has to be said that of all the issues Iain has raised with me over the last two years, a shortage of seaweed experts at GCHQ has not been among them.
- Published online at gov.uk under the title 'Speech at Bletchley Park', with a colour photo of the politician in question.

Let's face it: a journalist listening to that lot might be excused for finding the Tandy anecdote by far the most interesting detail of the speech. There's a moral here: this is not the first time a politician has quoted a juicy anecdote without fact-checking first. And it probably won't be the last.

Read for Yourself

If you'd like more information on the colourful life of Geoffrey Tandy and his relationship with TS Eliot, we recommend this excellent blogpost: 'Old Possum and the Limbs of Satan' by David Collard.

For a fuller debunking of the 'cryptogam' myth, read 'Your WW2 too-good-to-be-true story debunking of the day' by Colby Cosh in the Canadian National Post. The article contains more background on the activities at Bletchley Park, sure to be of interest to cryptography fans.

1In the 1960s, a botanist in California spent a couple of frustrating days with a B-movie filmmaking team, trying to dissuade them from the notion that artfully-filmed lichens would make good movie monsters. After many hours of attempted forced perspective, they finally agreed with him that lichens just weren't that scary, and were, frankly, boring. (Personal communication, 1970)

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