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Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin Paperback – 2 Sep 2004
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'A must for every British Christmas stocking.' John Carey; 'Unputdownable... the man writes like a dream - informed, fresh, racy prose.' Guardian
Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford is a rapturous history of British engineering, of which the Daily Telegraph said, 'I don't want to pretend that Backroom Boys is perfect; it's just as near to it as makes no difference.'See all Product description
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However, it's not a perfect book - as might be expected given the range of content, it's a wee bit on the shallow side - just as you're really getting into a chapter, it comes to an often unceremonious conclusion. A list of sources and further reading is provided, but it seems like more could have been meaningfully included in every section. It's a pretty slim book after all, and it's not as if anyone would have been suffering readers fatigue to a degree sufficient to justify cutting the tales so short.
A charming book overall, but one that you really need to view as a 'toe-dipping' overview rather than a worthy investigation in and of itself.
Taken together it tells the story of how Britain stopped being an industrial society and turned into something else.
The book is a series of case studies involving public sources and a series of first hand interviews with the key people involved with the development of the technologies describing how they tackled the huge technical problems they faced.
For example, the development of the mobile phone now used with such abandon all over the world. In 1947 Ring and Young of the Bell Laboratories cracked the secret of mobile phone communication. But with a small number of frequencies available how do you support a large number of users? The secret was to think small and divide the country into a multitude of cells each with short range low powered base station that could handle the traffic in that one cell. Then reuse the frequencies over and over again with the base stations connected by hard line. The problems of interference between adjacent cells and of seamlessly switching a user who crossed a cell boundary without their noticing it had to be cracked.
The book tells the story of Vodaphone's leading role in developing mobile operations after the Thatcher government offered 2 licences to run the public telephone services. BT got one and Racal got the other. In 1984 David Targett, appointed CEO of Vodaphone by Gerald Whent, MD of Racal, adopted an empirical model. He set up antennae and recorded signal strength in as many directions as possible taking account of trees, buildings and church spires leading to PACE - the Prediction and Coverage Estimation model.
In the 1990's the European manufacturers and regulators were far sighted enough to collaborate to create a standard for digital generation of networks called GSM (Group Speciale Mobile) which ensured that all networks talked to one another. GSM did for manufacturers (e.g. Nokia) and operators (e.g. Vodaphone) what Windows did for Microsoft.
Spufford repeats this case study with the story of the Black Arrow all British satellite launcher built by Armstrong Siddeley at Anstey near Coventry using hydrogen peroxide technology. And he does the same for the computer game industry that led to British studios authoring 35% of the world's playstation games by 2000. The story of the human genome project and the role of the Sanger Institute is another.
An inspiring and riveting book.
From the roots of De Havilland, from AcornSoft (and its successor/spin-off ARM), to Racal and Vodafone, the Wellcome Trust and so many other great organisations, this book is one of those books that only scratch the surface of our science and engineering heritage, a heritage that is all too often hidden away for the sake of our 'new economy' (financial services and the like), and a heritage that continues to this day. It should make us British proud.
If you're an aviation kind of person, also consider reading Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World, another nod to our great heritage in aviation.
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