Book: Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford

Six interesting stories of British science and engineering of the late 20th century

Francis Spufford
Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin
Faber and Faber
ISBN 0-571-21496-7
UKP 14.99

Backroom Boys is about various triumphs of British science and engineering in the second half of the 20th century. I hope that my British friends will forgive me for saying that one might think that a book on that subject belonged on the list of proverbially short books along with Famous Examples of American Modesty and How to Persuade WASPs to Express Their Feelings. So what does Mr Spufford say in his 231 pages? The six projects he describes are diverse and some of their successes changed the world. When the American company that was working on sequencing the human genome announced that it would increase its speed sufficiently that the whole thing would, in effect, become its property, the Wellcome Trust, a British charity which funded part of the British work, doubled their investment in the project and said that they'd do more if they had to. That was enough to persuade everyone else who was working to put the human genome in the public domain not to give up. But in order to make that work, the laboratory doing the sequencing had to be able to double the scale of its efforts in a hurry. It's thanks to British scientists and the administrators of a British charity that the code that makes us human is available to everyone.

Some of the other stories are less stirring but more technically interesting. (But I'd say that, I'm a geek.) A recurring theme is British engineers needing to be particularly smart because they were working with so few resources. Engineers always think that they're working with inadequate resources, but some of these Brits worked with astonishingly few resources. One of the stories is about the creation of the computer game Elite. I remember playing it on an Apple II in the late 1980s. I was impressed then that it ran on a machine with 128K of RAM. I was astonished to read that it was originally written for the BBC Micro which had only 32K. The last chapter is about Beagle 2, the British lander that will separate from the rest of the Mars Express mission and land on Mars this Christmas day to look for life there. Those engineers managed to build the lander for just 25m pounds and make it as small as a barbecue kettle. I'll be checking their site on Christmas and hoping that all goes well for it.

There are a couple of passages in the section on cell phones in which Mr Spufford tries to give an impression of all the conversations that go on at once by quoting stray phrases from hypothetical telephone conversations. Happily, the rest of his writing is much more effective.

Not everyone is interested in the history of technology but it's safe to say that if the topic sounds interesting, Mr Spufford's book won't disappoint.

Posted: Thu - December 18, 2003 at 09:08   Main   Category: