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Backroom Boys

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  265 ratings  ·  28 reviews
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, The Backroom Boys tells the bittersweet story of modern British engineers and inventors. Sad, inspiring, funny and ultimately triumphant, it follows the technologists whose work kept Concorde flying, created the co ...more
Kindle Edition, 276 pages
Published November 25th 2010 by Faber & Faber Non Fiction (first published 2003)
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4.05  · 
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 ·  265 ratings  ·  28 reviews

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Mar 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The poetry of science and determination told with equal eloquence and passion. A book about British people calmly and good naturedly going about complex tasks for good reasons. Francis Spufford teaches at Goldsmiths about 2km from my house, and having read this and Red Plenty, it is another reason I am proud to be a South Londoner again. (ZONE 2, EAST LONDON LINE, COFFEE SHOPS, ART STUDENT GRADUATE WOMEN, NICE FRONT DOORS)

The book details six Quiet British Science Triumphs of the post war era as
Victoria Roe
Apr 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: b-roes-books
I wasn't at all sure of this when I started but, on reflection, I think it just took me a while to get used to the style of writing. I really don't read a lot of this sort of book but it was very engagingly written with a lot of humour and some great use of interview quotes throughout. I struggled slightly with some of the engineering detail but managed to get through it; I think it's fairly telling that the two stories I found the hardest to get through (the rockets and the radio) were probably ...more
Feb 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who had a heart
Recommended to Chasquis by: Anna
Have you ever wondered how Concorde actually got built? Just the politics alone would make up a chapter or a thesis! The cutting edge technology and the whole sacrificial nature of the project; both we and the French had to make offerings to the gods of the air, of our egos, our secrets and ever vaster sums of money for the thing to fly at all, let alone cross the Atlantic on a regular, noisy and super expensive basis.
From supersonic to microscopic, Francis Spufford covers some of the more outst
Aug 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: physical
A fascinating book looking into the development 6 British technical and geeky projects involving rockets, DNA, home computers and mobile phones. Some were more successful than others! Sadly the edition I read ends in late 2003 just before the British Beagle 2 was due to land on Mars. At least the author was open to the risks and possibility of the probe being unsuccessful, and concentrated on the joy of the probe getting built and launched at all.
Dec 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A cracking account of what British scientists have brought to the modern world, touching on the space programme, the making of Vodaphone, Concorde, gene therapy and computer graphics. Interesting, informative and, on the race to prevent the an American mapping the human genome and selling it, quite inspiring.
Hugh Mason
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 fadi
Mar 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a collection of several "tales from the trenches" about British engineers. I knew that this book has a chapter about "Elite" -- the game that I played extensively in middle school and was fascinated about -- but it was in the middle of the book, so I decided to start at the beginning. And gradually I read the whole book. It has chapters about Concord -- that I always wanted to read about, and British space program -- which I did not know anything about, and Vodafone and dawn of GSM netwo ...more
Aug 12, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure how a book about brilliant engineering feats could be so boring, but Spufford pulls it off. Ended up skimming the second half, hoping for interesting tidbits, finding few.
Nose in a book (Kate)
This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actua
Ian Smith
Nov 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Utterly brilliant. Six quirky histories of postwar British engineering - everything from Concord to Mars exploration. Not all of it successful, but then we Brits thrive on qualified failure. "Better to have loved and lost....." and "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." Pure BS, but a great way of disguising failure!

The weakest of the six? Perhaps the story of 'Elite' - an apparently groundbreaking computer game. No, I hadn't heard of it either.

And the best? Eas
Jun 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved every piece of this book. One of the best non-fiction I have read.

Six chapters/sections on various "British" scientific endeavors: Black Knight (Rockets to Space!), Concorde (Wow!), Elite, Cellphones (I still hate Oftel), DNA (Saving the Human Genome project from corporate America) and Beagle 2 (our last, best hope).

Every one well written. Every one a good length. Every one compelling.

In a parochial somewhat British way all of these stories struck a chord, but they are also great stories.
May 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In my favorite sections, Backroom Boys is an immensely readable account of technological and technical innovations in Britain, and at its finest, it sustains an incredible amount of tension over whether--or, at any rate, how--specific plans will bear fruit. Because of varying levels of technical detail and (my) technical expertise, I didn't find all the sections equally involving (and since I'm weakest at physics, the opening chapter on rockets was the one I found hardest to follow), but a remar ...more
For anyone who wants to know how the Brits established themselves as leaders in the cellphone and computer games industries (amongst others), then this is a great introduction. More importantly though, it describes the inspiring and motivational "can-do" attitude of some of the most important applied scientists, engineers and scientific entrepreneurs. The story of a bunch of men driving around London in a van trying to work out mobile phone cell blackspots made me chuckle. If you like this book, ...more
Dec 20, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: from-orbit-2008
A collection of essays about a selection of British projects in science and engineering, ranging from rocket-design, to computer-game development, to the siting of base stations for cellphone networks. The individual essays are fascinating and Spufford describes the technical and organisational issues extremely well, but he makes no attempt to pull them together - which is the same problem I had with I may be some time , his book about the place that the polar regions have in the British imagin ...more
British non-fiction author writes a love letter to technology. He covers the period from post-WWII British rocketry, through the supersonic Concorde, software startups, cell phones, and mapping the human genome. He's a wonderful writer, with an amazing gift for the delicious anecdote. There was a computer game in the 1980s that sold 150,000 copies -- the same as the number of BBC Micro computers in the world, and that release only ran on the BBC Micro. How's that for market penetration?
David Tucker
Some great facts and insight to untalked about technologies but sometimes goes on too long about to and froing between government etc. Glad to have read it, favourite chapter was on history of mobile phone
Feb 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
You can find my review of Backroom Boys on my book blog.
Dick Davies
Aug 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A ripping yarn of British boffins which climaxes with the arrival of a British suitcase on Mars. Don't let the boffin bit put you off this book makes advanced science (including the rocket type) understandable and fascinating.
Nov 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
writing is entertaining and the stories are fascinating
John Bradney
Jun 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An enjoyable look at some of the more interesting science, engineering and business projects to originate in the British Isles. Very informative and entertaining.
Aug 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really fascinating. A thorough (and slightly nerdy) account of hi-tech successes by UK engineers in the post war period.
Allan Donald
Made me think of Vodafone in a whole new light. And want to play Elite again.
Readable technical stuff; interesting about how companies attempted to patent the gene.
Su-Min Lee
I liked some of the chapters, but not all of them. It's likely due to my own personal interests.
Nov 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Six snapshots of science in Great Britain since WW2. Inspiring
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Spufford began as a writer of non-fiction, though always with a strong element of story-telling. Among his early books are I May Be Some Time, The Child That Books Built, and Backroom Boys. He has also edited two volumes of polar literature. But beginning in 2010 with Red Plenty, which explored the Soviet Union around the time of Sputnik using a mixture of fiction and history, he has been drawing ...more
“NASA's working assumption until then had been that, hardcore space groupies apart, people would only feel an imaginative investment in space if astronauts were involved, acting as a kind of representative human presence and giving the onlookers somewhere to situate themselves in relation to what they were seeing. Astronauts warmed space up, in media terms. They made it consequential. They provided the marker of human intent without which (it was assumed) any location would be just a set of affectless co-ordinates out there in the vacuum. The unmanned science missions to the planets were for scientists only, not for the general public whose emotions swayed space budgets. But when Pathfinder bounced safely to rest in Ares Vallis, and the six-wheeled rover Sojourner trundled out onto the boulder-studded plain like a big, cute, self-propelling roller skay, NASA discovered it had a spontaneous hit on its hands. It turned out people were willing for a robot to act as their surrogate on another world, so long as they could feel intimately connected to what it was doing.” 0 likes
“Rockets now evoke a slightly old-fashioned kind of wonder, because they stand for an obsolete version of technological prowess. In the scheme of history which has become the most popular version of the recent past, the Space Age counts as the final phase of the Age of Industry – its culmination, just before the paradigm changed and the Age of Information replaced steel with digits.” 0 likes
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