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Backroom Boys – Francis Spufford ****

Perhaps the least atypical popular science book we’ve ever come across – in part because it isn’t really popular science, but is rather a book that fits there better than any other category (much of it could just as easily be business/technology history). Spufford’s text comes across more as that of a pop historian – and very enjoyable it is too – as he catalogues the development of six quirky technological breakthroughs.
Recently TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson mentioned he was writing a book about machines with a soul – and if you extend this concept to technology with a soul, you’ve got a good picture of what Spufford is about. They overlap in handling Concorde, that remarkably ahead-of-its-time machine that merged antiquated technology – its flight deck looked an antique many, many years before it went out of service – with the most stunning achievement – an airliner than flew like a Mach 2 fighter. This ‘machines with soul’ label is true even of the section on the human genome project, where the industrial machine of modern biology is portrayed.
Perhaps the two most fascinating segments are on Concorde, where there’s some excellent business history in the way the new-look BA turned around what had been a millstone round the government’s neck into a money-spinner, and one on the computer game Elite. It’s easy to forget this game now – but it single-handedly made the leap from the Space Invaders style trivia of the day to a modern, mission-based game, all crammed into a ridiculous 22K of memory. At the time we all marvelled at how such a huge game, with hundreds of planets to visit, could be crammed into such a space. Now we know.
Spufford’s style is smooth and easy to read. If there’s one slight criticism it’s that a number of his small facts are wrong. As an example, he mentions that Elite was launched at the Thorpe Park theme park in the UK where they had just built ‘the world’s first underground rollercoaster’. Thorpe Park never had an underground rollercoaster – the ride in question was a rather feeble space-themed coaster that was indoors and in the dark, but came long after Space Mountain, and was so small scale that the machinery (now outside and fish themed) is now regarded as a smaller children’s ride. These little errors (there are several more) never get in the way of the story, though. (The subject of the last section is also unexpectedly depressing, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.)
The book isn’t available in the US, because they’re all UK stories – but that’s a shame. It doesn’t detract from the universal appeal of people working ridiculous hours in an underfunded environment to crack some techno-problem. In this it is just as fascinating as stories of the early days at Microsoft. It’s a great book, that only loses its fifth star because it isn’t really popular science.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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