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The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin [Illustrated] [Hardcover]

Francis Spufford
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 Nov 2003
Britain is the only country in the world to have cancelled its space programme just as it put its first rocket into orbit. Starting with this forgotten episode, this text tells the bitter-sweet story of how one country lost its industrial tradition and got something back. Sad, inspiring, funny and ultimately triumphant, it follows the technologists whose work kept Concorde flying, created the computer game, conquered the mobile-phone business, saved the human genome for the human race and who are now sending the Beagle 2 probe to burrow the cinnamon sands of Mars.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; illustrated edition edition (6 Nov 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571214967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571214969
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14.4 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 573,549 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a writer of non-fiction who is creeping up gradually on writing novels. I write slowly and I always move to new subject-matter with each book, because I want to be learning something fresh every time, both in terms of encountering history and people and thinking which are new to me, and also in the sense of trying out a new way of writing. My idea of a good project is one that I can only just manage. I've written a memoir of my childhood as a compulsive reader, an analysis of the British obsession with polar exploration, a book about engineers which is also a stealth history of Britain since 1945, and a fusion of history with novel called "Red Plenty", about the USSR in the early 1960s. My next book will complete my slow crabwise crawl into fiction by being an honest-to-goodness entirely made-up story, without a footnote in sight. But before that, I have out a short polemic about religion called "Unapologetic". Despite the impression given by some of the reactions to it, it isn't, in fact, an attack on atheism, a position I have no trouble at all respecting. I am a little rude and a little mocking to the likes of Richard Dawkins - but it seems to me that when it comes to the lived experience of faith, Dawkins and co. are, as they say, not even wrong. So, though the book begins at the familiar address where the bust-up over religion has been going on for a decade now, it then goes entirely elsewhere, to try to convey to readers of all persuasions what Christianity feels like from the inside: actual Christianity, rather than the conjectural caricature currently in circulation. The book isn't an argument than Christianity is true, because how could anyone know that? It's only an attempt to show that it is recognisable, in ordinary human terms - made up of the shared emotions of ordinary adult life, rather than taking place in some special and simple-minded zoo. There is a tumblr for the book at

(Oh, biography. I was born in 1964, I'm married with a seven-year-old daughter, and I teach on the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, London.)

Product Description


Francis Spufford is the Tom Wolfe of technology journalism ... Unreservedly marvellous. -- Focus, October 2003

It provides start-to-finish enjoyment ... A must for every British Christmas stocking. -- Sunday Times, 26 October 2003

The most fascinating book I've read all year. -- Daily Mail, 31 October 2003

From the Inside Flap

Britain is the only country in the world to have cancelled its space programme just as it put its first rocket into orbit. Starting with this forgotten episode, ‘Backroom Boys’ tells the bittersweet story of how one country lost its industrial tradition and got back something else.

Sad, inspiring, funny and ultimately triumphant, it follows the technologists whose work kept Concorde flying, created the computer game, conquered the mobile-phone business, saved the human genome for the human race - and who now are sending the Beagle 2 probe to burrow in the cinnamon sands of Mars.

‘Backroom Boys’ is a vivid love-letter to quiet men in pullovers, to those whose imaginings take shape not in words but in mild steel and carbon fibre and lines of code. Above all, it is a celebration of big dreams achieved with slender means.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Soggy chips and vaunting ambition 13 Jun 2004
At last someone has written down the stories of all the pipe-chuffing uncle-figures who were once my heroes. And what a great job Francis Spufford has done.
It would be easy to caricature the quiet, understated passion of men whose ambition stretches from the suburbs to the stars. While Spufford's writing is full of funny human detail, he never takes that easy line. Instead, he overcomes the challenge of linking a list of contrasting stories to reveal a larger theme: how successive sons of a fading empire have tried to make their technological dreams come true in a changing political and economic climate. This is a celebration of the true "White Heat of a new technological revolution" - a heat that still burns in the hearts of individual scientists, inventors and professional engineers.
As one who nearly joined their ranks, please indulge me while I add my own anecdote to Spufford's excellent book. I vividly remember a holiday in 1975, on the day when one of the Viking landers touched down on Mars. While the family were sitting down to watch Patrick Moore and the first pictures from the surface of an alien world, we heard that the local chippy had acquired a new-fangled invention - a "microwave" oven. Dad rushed out and returned with chicken cooked from raw in the magic rays. It was pale and pasty, but somehow that didn't matter. We sat munching it with soggy chips in front of the telly and it felt like the dawn of our very own Space Age. Soggy chips and vaunting ambition is what this book is all about.
"Backroom Boys" starts with a chapter about the early British space programme ("Flying Spitfires to Other Planets") and ends with the "Beagle 2" mission to Mars. There's a scrotum-crawling irony about the way the latter turned out to be such a dog of spacecraft.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quietly brilliant 6 Jan 2005
Its de rigeur these days to pour scorn on British engineering and science and to nostalgically yearn for victorian days when Brunel and his ilk were steam-hammering their way to eternity. Its also a well established cliche to deride scientists and engineers for their lack of ambition and passion and humanity- this book should put paid to all of these myths.
The book is best read a series of long stories rather than a narrative history, and each story has different qualities. The first, about the miserable extinction of Britain's space race is the most Dan Dare-ish; men in cardigans with mustaches and pipes building rockets in sheds, their quiet ambition thwarted by political intransigence.
The author then goes onto the concorde story, an exercise in financial planning and marketing more than engineering. Racal/Vodaphone an paean to thatcherism, Acorn/Elite to nerdism (though i dispute that Britain "invented" the modern PCgame). The gene sequencing essay is more about the strong anarchist streak in british science (as well as how Britain saved the world, no really),and finally, the piece on Beagle2 is about marketing over engineering.
This all adds up to much more than a simple gung-ho tale. Spufford is an intelligent and literate writer with a keen sense of humanity and irony. Its ends up being almost an elegy to the British engineering tradition, its astounding ambition and its tendency to be thwarted by politics, accountants and small-mindedness. Read it, weep and laugh; this is about our past, and if only we only we shared their nerdy ambition, should be about our future.
Highly recommended.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Backroom Boys Come to the Fore. 3 Nov 2003
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a marvelous book. A selection of tales from the highpoints of British science and engineering.
What's best for me is Spufford's use of language, this is no dry list of geekery and geeks but a tale of human endeavour, brought to life by a talented author.
His writing about the shape of Concorde, "it still looks as if a crack has opened in the fabric of the universe and a message from tomorrow has been poked through. Only it is clear now that the tomorrow in question was yesterday's tomorrow. " moves us to realise that even after thirty years this plane is still an artifact of future but that sadly it is not our future.
The descriptions of ultimate fate of the Prospero satellite and the challenge to sequence the human genome are both alternately moving and amusing. The sad tale of the falling out between the authors of "Elite" shows just how human these inventors are.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
My grandfather spent the war years designing switchgear for G.E.C in Manchester. He carried a five-inch slide rule in the breast pocket of his tweed jacket and a well-stocked tobacco tin at the hip. He was good at partial differential equations but couldn't change a light bulb. He would have been very irritated by someone who mixes up Newton's first and third laws as Mr. Spufford does.

For someone who clearly admires the pared down aesthetic of British engineering at it's best Spufford's prose style is surprisingly flowery. Some readers may well be left feeling they have bought a pink Cadillac when what they really wanted was a Lotus Seven. Having said that I still enjoyed the book, read it in a couple of days and found the stories interesting, informative, amusing and sometimes touching. The hard core techie will be disappointed the book does not contain more science but the general reader (and I suspect more particularly the British general reader) will be be thoroughly entertained.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a book.
What can I say - It's a book and I haven't read it yet.
Published 26 days ago by Duncan Tribute
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellant
Just what I wanted for my father as he worked at EMI as a research scientist in there shadow factory, which as such been demolished.
Published 1 month ago by Mr. William L. Cooper
4.0 out of 5 stars Boffin book
Interesting book containing some historical information I was not aware of. Being a 'backroom boy' type of engineer myself (electronic design), I found a lot of the storyline... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Mr WD Fowdrey
5.0 out of 5 stars How Our Modern World was Made
Not just about rockets (though those are here too) but also fascinating chapters on the British contribution to the development of mobile phone technology, video games for PCs and... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Kentish Man
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
I was very disappointed by this book. I thought it would be about Britian's post-war jet aircraft and doomed rocket developments. Read more
Published 6 months ago by stuinwolves
3.0 out of 5 stars Consummate Journalism
Impeccably researched and extremely well-written, this book ought serve as an example for popular science and technology writing. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Mark Hurst
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but...
This is an excellent book, and highly original. It describes the unsung contribution British scientists and engineers have made in a number of key areas of modern life - computer... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Timothy Hammond
5.0 out of 5 stars Great subject material, superb penmanship
Topics as diverse as Concorde and human genome sequencing are explored in ways that lie outside the ambit of conventional authorship. Read more
Published 18 months ago by John Lean
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read.
Especially about cold war space race and rise of the computer games giants. Heavy and overly prodigious in places, but a good buy. New and despatched OK.
Published 20 months ago by theob-scure
3.0 out of 5 stars More a collection of essays, but a good read even so
This book is about 'back room boys' a phrase coined during the war for those mostly anonymous people who did amazing research and produced much of the technology which helped win... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Simon Binning
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