Fortean Times, April 2004
Backroom boys: The
secret return of the British boffin
Faber and Faber2003
HB, £15.99, pp234 ISBN: 0 571 21496 7
A engrossing history of British ingenuity, 'Backroom Boys' celebrates the cliché of eccentric boffins reaching for the stars on a shoestring budget. The book is as much about the financial and political machinations as the nitty-gritty mechanics, with six episodic chapters following the technological and economic evolution of the UK over the past 60 years. There's genuine insight into the workings of successive generations of engineers, scientists and mathematicians who confound conventional wisdom but often flounder on commercial reality.
First up is the almost forgotten story of Britain's own cheap and cheerful space programme, the technically ingenious Black Arrow rocket which couldn't compete with the big-bucks launchers developed elsewhere. Then there's Concorde, perhaps the ultimate example of engineering over content a jawdroppingly impressive white elephant whose only commercial value was as a marketing gimmick.
The third section tackles the development of the computer games industry in the 1980s, with the groundbreaking 'Elite' game creating a Thatcherite universe of shooting and trading. Devotees of nuts and bolts engineering might disagree, but Spufford argues that the creative and technical ingenuity behind these new economy industries is of the same order as that of the old rocket scientists. They often prove more successful, as the following chapters illustrate. In mobile communications, UK firms reversed the usual technological dominance of the US, thanks largely to the adoption of the quango-defined GSM standard across Europe; and the anarchic ideals behind the Sanger Institute's analysis of the human genome resoundingly outflanked Craig Venter's profit-hungry grab for the very stuff of human life.
After such triumphs, the story returns to the final frontier and, ironically, comes back to earth with a bump. A short final chapter on the Beagle 2 Mars lander, as much a shoestring project as Black Arrow, sadly reads like instant nostalgia at the time of writing, the lander remains infuriatingly silent, a reminder of the gremlins lurking in every boffin's dream.