Review: Backroom Boys

Francis Spufford’s Backroom Boys is a quirky little collection of pieces on British engineering in the late 20th and early 21st Century. I’m not a dedicated anglophile, but I found plenty to like in his lively and unusual descriptions of the men and the challenges they faced.

British engineering is an odd subject in and of itself.  There are certainly great examples of it, but as Britain’s influence and empire contracted after WWII, so did the ambition and scope of its engineering projects.  Rather than leading the world’s efforts in creating transports and munitions, British engineers work at a smaller scale.  This adds a bittersweet tone to Spufford’s tour.

In addition to the wide-sweeping historical forces, from the 1980’s on British engineers were also blown by the winds of Thatcherism.  That government believed in small government and privitization of services in all aspects of service.  Keeping the funding flowing for, say, a space exploration agency going in that climate is well nigh impossible.  Spufford calls his government out on that pretty much continually across the periods when they are in power.

This adds up to a rich tale of little known efforts – some successful, others quixotic – set against a backdrop of historical sweep and villainy.  It’s delightful reading, perhaps because being an American gives me some distance. Spufford lets the reader see the great in the small as he describes some genuinely fascinating technological tinkering.  One of the strangest chapters is the description of the Concorde SST, which mostly revolves around the economic and marketing battles fought by British Airways to keep the plane flying, rather than the tech to make it go fast.

In addition to the big picture, the book entertained me because of its British audience.  If you’re writing for Brits, you certainly use a different set of homey analogies when describing technology.  Still, it was an unexpected pleasure to reverse engineer the analogies from the technologies.


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