Why the story of an accidental WWII codebreaker is going viral
An Enigma machine is displayed at Bletchley Park museum in the town of Bletchley in Buckinghamshire, England, on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. (AP / Matt Dunham)
Published Tuesday, April 10, 2018 12:04PM EDT
A British algae expert who had an unlikely role in defeating the Germans during the Second World War is once again in the spotlight, thanks to a viral Twitter thread.
The story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was mistaken for a codebreaker and sent to work with the team of famed cryptographers at Bletchley Park, has become a Twitter “moment.”
Florence Schechter, who describes herself as a “science communicator and comedian,” re-told Tandy’s story in the most 2018 way possible: in a dozen tweets accompanied by GIFs.
Let me tell you a story about how a typo helped end World War Two... (thread) pic.twitter.com/HxismWwlzE— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
Schechter’s history lesson has been re-tweeted and “liked” thousands of times. When another Twitter user replied that he doesn’t even care whether the story is true, Schechter provided links to historical references.
According to a 2014 article published by the U.K.’s Natural History Museum, Geoffrey Tandy was a cryptogamist – “an expert in non-flowering, spore-reproducing plants like seaweeds, mosses and ferns” – who worked at the Museum for over a decade, starting in 1926.
But during the Second World War, the Ministry of Defence confused his title with a cryptogramist, or a codebreaker. So Tandy, who had enlisted as a volunteer with the Royal Navy Reserves, was sent to Bletchley Park and asked to help crack the code of the German Naval Enigma machine.
They show him the enigma machine and are like "dude, you gotta help us crack it - you're the best cryptogrammist in all of the UK!". And poor Geoff is like "this is super awks, I'm a cryptoGAMMIST not a cryptoGRAMMIST. I'm not a specialist in codes, I'm a specialist in algae..." pic.twitter.com/tJymArsZ1k— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
Poor Geoff does nothing for TWO YEARS. Probably sitting on the grass and looking Alan Turing's butt which I assume was da bomb. pic.twitter.com/S2LYzqxc6d— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
UNTIL 1941.... when the allies torpedoed a German U-boat and managed to salvage a load of documents including a BIGRAM TABLE (!!!) which is like super duper important because they show how to unscramble messages through the enigma machine! pic.twitter.com/fTdGkZ94IN— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
And that’s how Tandy finally got to use his biology expertise in a major British intelligence operation. Based on his experience working with wet plant specimens, he knew how to restore the messages written on water-damaged paper.
If it weren't for him, Benedict Cumberbatch's lookalike Alan Turing wouldn't have been able to do his thang. GO TANDY!— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
So a big up to scientists in unexpected places. And if anyone ever tells you off for a typo, tell them his story. pic.twitter.com/LVmY1MGU2A