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on 12 June 2015
There is a great amount to like in this book. Francis Spufford has a very assured writing style - warm and conversational without being 'folksy', and his stories of British ambition (tempered with British failure) are told with a considerable amount of real affection. It's full of tremendous insights across a range of scientific disciplines, and I learned much from it - especially the role of Vodaphone in innovating the design of mobile phone coverage and the importance of British scientists in keeping the Human Genome project in public hands.

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.
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on 6 October 2011
Backroom boys is a phrase from the 1940's implying engineers of distracted demeanour, ineptitude at human relations who were regarded with affectionate incomprehension and a little condescension. But this book dispels that stereotype. This is a unique, riveting account of the development of several modern technologies in Britain, told with Spufford's colourful description of personalities and rivalries as events unravel. It challenges the conventional wisdom of the decline and diminishing ambition of British industry since the War. Certainly there were and continue to be errors and losses and retreat from industrial competences but, above all, there was adaptation and the appearance of new technologies of software, gene sequencing, wireless communication and computer games where the British are up with the best.

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.
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on 2 September 2012
If you love technology, aviation, space, gaming or science, this book is an absolute must-read. It is a not-to-be-put-down kind of book. Written over 6 chapters or stories, this book covers how scientists and engineers, geeks and extremely passionate people made some of the things that many of us take for granted, happen.

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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on 13 June 2012
This book is for those who didn't know Britain had a space program, who don't understand why or how the programmers of the computer game "Elite" were so fiendishly clever and several other subjects.

It is a celebration of the genius of gifted scientists making do without huge budgets and still pulling off world firsts. The only part I didn't complete was the section on the Human Genome, for some reason the writing didn't quite gel for me. That aside it is a great book which you don't need a university degree to understand and includes an update to the final section which sets out how great Beagle 2 will be only to have to inform us in the update that it crashed and burned.

The question is, what great stories are there to be written in the future about today's scientists?
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on 13 August 2013
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 games, rocketry, mobile phones, aviation - in an entertaining and well-written way. The author clearly knows and loves his stuff, and part of the attraction of this book is the evident sympathy of Francis Spufford for the "Backroom Boys". The chapters on gaming and mobiles in particular were fascinating for me, as they are areas I knew little to nothing about. If you think that "boffins" disappeared from Britain in 1945, or that we have had no role in the modern world or you have any interest in technology and engineering at all, this is required reading for you.

Why do I hold back from five stars then?

For two, interconnected reasons. Spufford cannot resist dabbling in areas where he displays conspicuous ignorance. In the chapter on Concorde for example, he describes the financial aspects of the project in terms which are frankly laughable. For example, he mentions return on capital a number of times without seeming to notice that no capital is being employed. Similarly, he mixes up balance sheets and income statements (sorry, but this is MY speciality) in ways that show he doesn't know what he is talking about. And the reason he does so is because he cannot resist showing his political prejudices. More than once he talks about Thatcherism "shredding" Britain's manufacturing (a claim that is simply not true), he quotes the fabulously misquoted comment about there being "no society" (look up the actual quote) and he disdains market solutions wherever he can.

It is a real shame, and rather ironic - Spufford clearly reveres those with specialist knowledge in some areas but then cannot be bothered to use the expertise of those in other areas to find out the facts.

Despite all of that, this is a brilliant and fascinating book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
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on 1 October 2014
I enjoyed reading this book, and appears well informed, although it is slightly out of date. I think it is important because so few people in the UK understand how much we are (still to some extent) a technologically leading country.

It is well written, and appears well researched.

But in end it is a rather sad tale of penny pinching and lack of ambition. Too many accountants and not enough engineers!
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on 12 November 2017
More a collection of essays so there is a lack of cohesive structure and focus, and some chapters have lopsided detail such as the funding model for Concorde.
But as a whole it's inspirational and an insightful study on why Britain is great at innovating but not good at productionising those ideas.
Highly recommended.
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on 19 January 2014
Impeccably researched and extremely well-written, this book ought serve as an example for popular science and technology writing. My only criticism is that it's a bit of a two-headed monster, addressing the politics behind its chosen projects as well as the science and technology. I found this a bit tedious and personally I'd have preferred a sharper focus on the nerd stuff.
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on 21 February 2017
I could not get on with the sluggish style, I lasted a few pages and gave up.
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on 30 January 2014
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 the unravelling of DNA. Crucial if you want to understand today...
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