'The backroom boys' is a phrase from the 1940s. It's what industrial-age Britain used to call the ingenious engineers who occupied the draughty buildings at the edge of factory grounds and invented the technologies of the future. Almost always, they were boys, or rather men: for historical reasons, but also because there is perhaps an affinity between the narrow-focused, wordless concentration required for engineering and a particular kind of male mind. Black-and-white war films made them iconic, gave them a public face everybody recognised, as the unworldly innocents who somehow produced a stream of spectacularly lethal gadgets. 'The backroom boys have come up with this. Perhaps you'd like to explain, Dr Prendergast.' 'Certainly, Major. You twist this little dial here, breaking the mercury-fulminate fuse, and you gently lower this lever here, and a sheet of flame comes out there. Oh, I am sorry. I'm sure your moustache will growback.' In the cinema, real backroom boys like Barnes Wallis, creator of the bouncing bomb, and R. J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, were joined by a legion of fictional counterparts. The public learned a set of characteristics that apparently spelled boffin: distracted demeanour, ineptitude at human relationships, perpetual surprise at the use that other people put their ideas to. But the backroom boys didn't only do military technology. They existed in every industry. They worked on the chemistry of paint, they devised new relays for telephone exchanges, they improved the performance of knitting machines. They were the quiet makers, regarded with affectionate incomprehension (and a little condescension) by a nation which found it easier to admire its smooth talkers and nice movers.
This book begins in the 1940s, but it is about much more recent British history. It is about what happened to the backroom boys as the world of the aircraft factories and the steel mills faded. There is an expected story here, a story we all know already about decline and the diminishing of British ambitions, but like the stereotype of the backroom boys, that story gives a complacent pat to a process which was, in truth, much less predictable. It's true that there were errors, there were losses, there was a retreat from industrial competence out of all proportion with necessity. But there were un~ remembered victories as well as unforgotten failures. Above all, there was adaptation. When the old industries faltered in Britain, the ingenious spirit of the backroom boys survived. The urge to build the future detached itself from lathes and wind tunnels, and reappeared in the new technologies of software, gene sequencing and wireless communications. The backroom boys are with us still.
This book is about the makers, but it's also about the making. Engineering, of any description, is an art of the possible. It happens at the junction between what is materially possible and what is humanly possible. Its course is shaped by the latest developments in the endless struggle to manipulate obdurate matter, and also by the agendas and priorities and resources and hopes and illusions of a society. Engineering is where science intersects with the way we live. So the fortunes of governments and businesses belong in its story; they have to be told too.
All the events described here really happened, but I am not trying to write the whole history of the transformation that took place in Britain over the last thirty years. I have not set out to be comprehensive, or final. I have chosen six incidents in the process, six scenes in a much larger drama. But, taken together, they tell one story: the story of how Britain stopped being an industrial society, and turned into something else.
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