Bear with me: This is a fascinating story, but not exactly the story I thought it was.
Yesterday my wife and I watched an episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries of the Museum, a historical oddities and trivia show that explores the stories behind museum exhibits around the world. Grace is a student of World War II history and is especially interested in the work at Bletchley Park, where the top secret work on breaking German codes went on, including the exploits of Alan Turing, the eccentric genius who broke the Enigma Code and managed to invent the computer in the process. The episode was advertised as the amazing and little-known tale of how a typographical error won World War II.
The story: Geoffrey Tandy was the British Museum’s “seaweed man,” and a certifiable eccentric. For one thing, he was a bigamist, heading two families that were not aware of each other. Tandy was also pals with poet T.S. Elliot, and more fond of writing esoterica than scholarly papers. Some typist somewhere along the line in his personnel paper work had misconstrued Tandy’s area of expertise, which was cryptogams, primitive seedless plants such as algae and lichens, as cryptograms, which are ciphers and codes. Thus papers circulated the wartime bureaucracy stating the marine biologist was really an ace code breaker. This got the puzzled algae specialist mistakenly assigned to Bletchley, where he was a fish out of water, or a lichen out of his element, or something. The real code-breakers quickly figured out that Tandy was useless, but since nobody was supposed to know what was going on in the old building, he was stuck. Tandy spent two years filing papers and making tea.
Then, just like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, unforeseen events conspired to make his special abilities crucial. Several sodden notebooks holding vital clues, including Bigram Tables, to the mysteries of the German Enigma code were recovered from a sunken U-boat. Unfortunately but understandably, they were soaked through with sea water, and apparently damaged beyond repairing. Tandy, however, knew an old cryptogam trick he had used to preserve tiny marine algae! Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy was able to carefully blot and dry the sodden pages, making them readable. As hoped, they yielded the crucial missing information Turing needed to break Enigma, acknowledged by all as a turning point in the war, as well as a Turing point.
As you might imagine from this blog’s frequent discussion of Chaos, Moral Luck and the fallacy of Consequentialism, I love this story! That dumb typo was the equivalent of the proverbial butterfly flapping its little wings in the Amazon, for it set into motion an unpredictable chain of events that may have saved humanity from Nazi domination. Yet it is still moral luck: nobody could have planned for such a result, and it perfectly illustrates how unethical conduct, in this case incompetence based on ignorance and carelessness, can have beneficent consequences, and vice-versa. Nobody claims that the clerk who was too lazy to look up “cryptogam” saved the civilized world, but in a way he or she did.
The episode also debunks consequentialism, the infuriatingly common misconception that if an act results in a good result, it was a good act, and if it has a bad result, it was a bad act, even though the actor in both cases may have done exactly the same thing and had no control whatsoever over the ultimate result. Thus, to take one particularly infuriating example also related to war: If President Bush’s attack on Iraq had uncovered hidden weapons of mass destruction, the decision to invade would have been a good one, but since no WMD’s were found, “Bush lied and people died.” Ethically and logically, however, the rightness or folly of the decision to invade must be judged based on conditions when it was made.
(You may recall that Jeb Bush was incapable of puzzling this concept out, and thus repeatedly botched questions about whether he would admit now that his brother’s decision to invade Iraq was “wrong.”)
Despite the fact that it had an unplanned and fortunate result, that was not a “good typo.” There are no good typos. All typos are bad, even the one in the story. Believe me, as a typo addict, I wish this wasn’t so.
How did this story suddenly surface after all these years? As my wife has pointed out, some of the secrets of Bletchley still haven’t been revealed by the British government, so the timing isn’t suspicious. It seems to have first been mentioned in a 2008 history of the British Natural History Museum. Then social media got into the act, and you know how accurate that is. Florence Schechter, a “science communicator and comedian,” tweeted about Tandy’s typo in a dozen tweets accompanied by GIFs, concluding with,
If it weren’t for him, Benedict Cumberbatch’s lookalike Alan Turing wouldn’t have been able to do his thang. GO TANDY! So a big up to scientists in unexpected places. And if anyone ever tells you off for a typo, tell them his story.
Unfortunately, “his story” isn’t true. That didn’t stop the tale from going viral on Facebook and Twitter earlier this year, resulting in the misinformation being passed on by the Travel Channel, NPR, and The New Republic, among others, as well as Google. Ethics Alarms nearly joined the parade, and indeed, as of last night, that was my plan. But I decided to check the facts first—you know, like old time, boring journalists used to do before the profession went to Hell and embraced fake news and conning readers?
Here is the real story. Tandy had served as an officer in the Royal Field Artillery during the late days of the First World War, then got a degree at Oxford and became an “assistant keeper” of botany at the Natural History Museum in London. The “keeper” job was essentially that of a master librarian. He had to have wide knowledge of botany, including cryptogams, and the ability to work with fragile samples and documents, as well as—and this is the part the story-tellers left out— knowledge of technical jargon in many foreign languages, including German. In other words, he was a linguist. Tandy was also a passionate sailor, and sometimes went on oceanographic expeditions.
In 1939, Tandy signed up with British Naval Intelligence and was assigned to lead what became known as “NS VI”, a bureau whose job was to gather foreign navy documents and interpret technical terms and abbreviations in them.
NS VI veteran Carmen Blacker writes in Codebreakers, her book of reminiscences about Bletchley Park:
“NS VI … specialized in the provision to cryptographers of ‘equivalents’. When technical terms, for which there was no entry in any dictionary, turned up in a deciphered message, NS VI undertook to provide the nearest English equivalent … be the language German, Italian, or Japanese.”
Ah HA! Tandy’s job was not to be a “cryptographer,” but the archivist-lexicographer for cryptographers. Since archivist-lexicographer was his profession, he was clearly not recruited because of a lucky typo. Blacker describes the section as a menagerie of oddballs: language experts and librarians, eccentrics like Tandy, chessmasters, archaeologists, mathematicians and people with other assorted talents just so they would be available if an opportunity arose—you know, like the need to salvage a soaked notebook from a sunken U-boat. Tandy’s son, who wrote a biography of his father, concluded that the “cryptogam”/“cryptogram” tale originated as a Bletchley joke.
So what have we learned?
We have learned, as if we didn’t know already, that the news media is staffed with too many lazy and unprofessional hacks who don’t check sources, and who regularly send misinformation into social media, where it may confuse and mislead people for generations. We have learned, once again, that we cannot trust the alleged profession whose job it is to inform us. We have learned that too many historians—one is too many–have the same problem. We have learned that despite what we may have seen on the Travel Channel, a typo did not win World War II, and that we have no idea how many other wonderful, interesting, oft-told stories from history that perfectly illustrate enduring truths are partially or entirely fiction.
And we have learned what a cryptogam is.