From The Ethics Alarms Moral Luck And Butterfly Effect Files: Geoffrey Tandy And The False But Fun Story Of How An Ignorant Typo Won World War II

Some pretty cryptogams…

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.


Sources: h2g2,  Awesome Stories, National Post, The New Republic, NPR

29 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Moral Luck And Butterfly Effect Files: Geoffrey Tandy And The False But Fun Story Of How An Ignorant Typo Won World War II

  1. So….even just sticking with the fictional story, there’s no typo at all, right? In the fictional story, it was a reading comprehension problem (an assumed typo, but wasn’t)

    If Travel Channel tells you that a typo saved WW2 and then tells you that a typist made a mistake because s/he thought it was a typo (but it wasn’t really a typo)…. ugh… that bothers me more than anything else.

    • Plus, a even then, a “reading error” or a “typo” didn’t save WW2…only made it ridiculously easier to win.

      Strategic bombing the industry out of Germany from the West, and meat grinding the youth out of Germany on the Eastern Front, and the Nazis doing us a favor by promoting incompetent political bootlickers to the highest ranks of the military are what saved WW2.

        • Indeed. For war to be less painful in the long run it has to be more painful in the short run.

          Dang it, I can’t find the quote about war being ugly but the uglier it is the faster it ends.

          No it isn’t Sherman’s letter to the Atlanta city council…

      • Make no mistake, I do appreciate the “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of the shoe, a horse was lost; for want of the horse a charge was lost; for want of the change, a battle was lost; for want of the battle, the war was lost” aspect of this story.

    • Good point. It was supposedly a reading comprehension error, causing someone to type “crtyptographer” intentionally. Or this was a case of a non-typo that someone mistakenly thought was a typo.

      If the story was true, which it isn’t.

  2. But someone somewhere was clever enough to spin a story off of this.

    I want to know who thought “ooo cryptogam…cryptogram… perfect story!”

    This reeks of an inside joke possibly derived from Tandy and his circle of friends himself.

  3. I guess the secret to making a falsehood sound believable is making it plausable. Last week I read that Samsung paid some $1 billion dollar fine to Apple in pennies. That did not seem plausable so I looked it up. It’s false. If it said 1 dollar bills, i would have ignored it.

    When you first wrote cryptogams, I assumed you were talking about cryptograms (my professor in college called this frame theory). Even if I noticed the spelling difference, I would have assumed it was a typo (which given your track record, would have been plausable).

    Still interesting story.

    • That Samsung story seems to possibly also rely on the somewhat common misconception that the recipient of a payment (especially if a government entity) must accept any combination of legal currency. Barring a specific local or state law requiring such, this is not true.

      I’d also be skeptical as to whether 100 billion pennies could be accumulated…even by arranging a special run from the mint.

      • From what I understand, debt must be paid in legal tender. Pennies are legal tender, so they are acceptable forms of debt. So if they did pay, Apple would to accept it. This is coming from Snopes, so take that for what you will.

        • I don’t have a reference to hand, but I have definitely read somewhere that at least one country thought of that and specified that small coins would only be legal tender up to a certain amount. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a widespread feature, and that the U.S.A. had also headed off this problem like that.

          There is also one of A.P.Herbert’s “Misleading Cases” that has the hero paying tax with a cheque written on a cow, as the law did not prescribe how cheques should be constructed.

      • According to the snopes article, payment for goods and services can be specifically requested, but debt must be accepted by any legal tender. So I guess they could pay in pennies. Snopes also argues that it would take all the nickels (in their verision it is nickels) minted from the last decade.

      • 100 billion pennies would be about 6,890 tons of copper and 268,750 tons of zinc +/- given I wasn’t going to be super precise about the atomic weights of the elements involved compared to their percentage composition of a penny.

    • When I saw cryptogams and the image and knowing the propensity for typos on these pages I too assumed cryptograms. Because I don’t know marine biology (even though I am aware of this Tandy myth) my brain immediately wanted to resolve the juxtaposition of the typo with an image with lots of interesting repeated detail. So I immediately thought the piece was going to be about Steganography – hiding messages in images.

      So the moral is: don’t jump to false conclusions.

  4. Let’s hear it for typists. Typing used to be a really important, valuable aspect of almost every walk of life. My mother was a typist at the University of Chicago Medical School and Hospital. She was an absolute pro and took great pride in her typing, which she did during my childhood and beyond as a volunteer secretary for all sorts of church and school groups. Accuracy was paramount to typists. They were professionals and took their job very seriously, even before corrassible paper and white out, not to mention word processors and auto correct.

    Re decisions: My wife and I have always contended whatever decisions we have made in our lives were the right ones because they were the decision we made at that time. Which may be a little simplistic, but maybe not.

  5. If anyone is interested in the history of cryptography and Cryptanalysis, the book Jack mentioned “Codebreakers” is excellent. It is quite the tome though.

  6. If you are interested in amazing accounts from WWII try and find these books:

    Green Beach.

    The Greatest Coup. A German fighter pilot, personally selected by Goering to be part of the first Luftwaffe Night Fighter squadron is a spy, working with his father who was running a spy ring for British Intelligence.

    Sidney Cotton: The Last Plane Out of Berlin records Cotton’s exploits pre WWII clandestinely photographing German military installations. There is also a great little documentary about him which I can’t find atm.

    These are smallish books, at odds with the gigantic heroes and daring-do they record.

    Not trying to advertise with the links, just be helpful.

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