Magazine article The Spectator

Backing into the Limelight

Magazine article The Spectator

Backing into the Limelight

Article excerpt

Backing into the limelight BACKROOM BOYS: THE SECRET RETURN OF THE BRITISH BOFFIN by Francis Spufford Faber, L15.99, pp. 234, ISBN 0571214967

The traditional boffin, as is well known, wore round specs and a white coat, tended to be rather bald, and was soft of speech and mild of manner whilst devising the destruction of thousands. Hammed up, he became the figure of Q, indispensable component of James Bond films; older black and whites show the genuine article. Alas, he is gone, his devices scrapped or obsolete, along with the concept of the Britain that he served.

Francis Spufford has, and gives, a lot of fun arguing that a neo-boffin has appeared to take his place, following the painful demise of the manufacturing economy and the rise of what he tactfully calls 'something else'. The new Backroom Boys thus demonstrate the invincible strain of ingenuity in British culture, flourishing best, to the point of genius, in tiny cells untrammelled by collective pressures.

He takes six examples to make his point, the first two from the old world of making things. The Black Knight space launcher, cancelled in 1971 in the usual British fashion, just as it succeeded, placing the Prospero satellite in an orbit so precise that it will stay there till 2040, but too small, too late, too expensive; and, inevitably, Concorde, escaping cancellation by the skin of its teeth many times, but too small, conceived for air travel as it was in 1962, so too late and much too expensive, and trailing its redoubtable sonic boom that its designers did not consider sufficiently. Both beautiful in their ways, like last flowerings.

The stories run parallel: boffins performing wonders under constantly changing directions, management put in a dither by uncertain funding, Treasury parsimony unmoved by unquantifiable prospects of future gain, weak political will, public indifference. For those brought up on Dan Dare (pictures of whose British interplanetary feats introduce each chapter) this is all very sad, and, like all disasters avoidable with hindsight, infuriating.

But cheer up, says Spufford, there arc still Backrooms from which Boys (literally in one case) emerge, and the boffin lives.

He cites the Elite computer game of the mid-1990s, a revolution in that field, devised by two Cambridge undergraduates in an 18-month gestation of great mathematical intensity. 150,000 were sold, an unheard-of number, as many as there were then computers to play them, plus numerous offshoots overseas: all from two teenagers poring over primitive computers in their bedrooms. …

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