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Oct 05 2013

Book Review: Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

backroomboysElectronic books bring many advantages but for a lengthy journey to Trento a paper book seemed more convenient. So I returned to my shelves to pick up Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford.

I first read this book quite some time ago, it tells six short stories of British technical innovation. It is in the character of Empire of the Clouds and A computer called LEO.  Perhaps a little nationalistic and regretful of opportunities lost.

The first of the stories is of the British space programme after the war, it starts with the disturbing picture of members of the British Interplanetary Society celebrating the fall of a V2 rocket in London. This leads on to a brief discussion of Blue Streak – Britain’s ICBM, scrapped in favour of the American Polaris missile system. As part of the Blue Streak programme a rocket named Black Knight was developed to test re-entry technology from this grew the Black Arrow – a rocket to put satellites into space.

In some ways Black Arrow was a small, white elephant from the start. The US had offered the British free satellite launches. Black Arrow was run on a shoestring budget, kept strictly as an extension of the Black Knight rocket and hence rather small. The motivation for this was nominally that it could be used to gain experience for the UK satellite industry and provide an independent launch system for the UK government, perhaps for things they wished to keep quiet. Ultimately it launched a single test satellite into space, still orbiting the earth now. However, it was too small to launch the useful satellites of the day and growing it would require complete redevelopment. The programme was cancelled in 1971.

Next up is Concorde, which could probably be better described as a large, white elephant. Developed in a joint Anglo-French programme into which the participants were mutually locked it burned money for nearly two decades before the British part was taken on by British Airways who used it to enhance the prestige of their brand. As a workhorse, commercial jet, it was poor choice: too small, too thirsty, and too loud.

But now for something more successful! Long ago there existed a home computer market in the UK, populated by many and various computers. First amongst these early machines was the BBC Micro. For which the first blockbuster game, Elite, was written by two Cambridge undergraduates (David Braben and Ian Bell). I played Elite in one of its later incarnations – on an Amstrad CPC464. Elite was a space trading and fighting game with revolutionary 3D wireframe graphics and complex gameplay. And it all fitted into 22kb – the absolute maximum memory available on the BBC Micro. The cunning required to build multiple universes in such a small space, and the battles to gain a byte here and a byte there to add another feature are alien to the modern programmers eyes. At the time Acornsoft were publishing quite a few games but Elite was something different: they’d paid for the development which took an unimaginable 18 months or so and when it was released there was a launch event at Alton Towers and the game came out in a large box stuffed with supporting material. All of this was a substantial break with the past. Ultimately the number of copies of Elite sold for the BBC Micro approximately matched the number of BBC Micros sold – an apparent market saturation.

Success continues with the story of Vodaphone – one of the first two players in the UK mobile phone market. The science here is in radio planning – choosing where to place your masts for optimal coverage, Vodaphone bought handsets from Panasonic and base stations from Ericsson. Interestingly Europe and the UK had a lead over the US in digital mobile networks – they agreed the GSM standard which gave instant access to a huge market. Whilst in the US 722 franchises were awarded with no common digital standard.

Moving out of the backroom a little is the story of the Human Genome Project, principally the period after Craig Venter announced he was going to sequence the human genome faster than the public effort then sell it! This effort was stymied by the Wellcome Trust who put a great deal further money into the public effort. Genetic research has a long history in the UK but the story here is one of industrial scale sequencing, quite different from conventional lab research and the power of the world’s second largest private research funder (the largest is currently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

The final chapter of the book is on the Beagle 2 Mars lander, built quickly, cheaply and with the huge enthusiasm and (unlikely) fund raising abilities of Colin Pillinger. Sadly, as the Epilogue records the lander became a high velocity impactor – nothing was heard from it after it left the Mars orbiter which had brought it from the Earth.

The theme for the book is the innate cunning of the British, but if there’s a lesson to be learnt it seems to be that thinking big is a benefit. Elite, the mobile phone network, the Human Genome Project were the successes from this book. Concorde was a technical wonder but an economic disaster. Black Arrow and Beagle 2 suffered from being done on a shoestring budget.

Overall I enjoyed the Backroom Boys, it reminded me of my childhood with Elite and the coming of the mobile phones. It’s more a celebration than a dispassionate view but there’s no harm in that.