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The Icon Bar: News and features: Book: Backroom Boys

Book: Backroom Boys

Posted by Richard Goodwin on 16:11, 29/11/2004 | , , , ,
Book coverA bit of a departure this, a sort of book review but scrunched to fit our newsfeed-friendly format. Hope it works. Anyway, I was on a business trip Oop Narth and hit the non-fiction section of the local Waterstones for something to kill the time. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin looked like an interesting read: an examination of post-War, post-industrial British innovation, loaded down with good reviews from newspapers I'd actually heard of. The first chapter (of six) dealt with Black Knight, the British entry in the space race, which actually succeeded in putting a satellite in orbit. The second, Concorde. The sort of projects most people would think of if you mentioned the word "engineering", interspersed with images lifted from 1950s-era Dan Dare comics.
So it came as some surprise when the third chapter, The Universe in a Bottle, started out describing David Braben's Acorn Atom, comparing it to the more expensive BBC Micro. A quick flick forward and there was a familiar-looking BASIC prompt, and a layman's explanation of how early home computers worked. It turns out that The Universe in a Bottle in question is the eight galaxy universe of Elite. There followed in the next forty-odd pages everything from how Braben and Ian Bell got interested in computers, how they met, right through to the release of the game and its aftermath. There's a fair amount of Acornsoft stuff in there, along with Acorn and ARM tidbits.
Although I'd bought the book without knowing it had any Acorn-related goodness inside, the story of one of my favourite games of all time was the icing on the cake. Acorn's inclusion should however should give you an inkling of the slightly bittersweet nature of some of the stories - Black Knight was successful (only £9m for the whole project!) but cancelled anyway, Concorde and Acorn we know the outcome of, and the last chapter is about the ill-fated Beagle 2 Mars probe (although the book was written before the probe was due to land, the chapter starts with a description of a Russian probe's failure). However, this shouldn't put you off a well written, amusing and (apparently) well researched book though. Instead of taking the easy route of exploring traditional engineering projects mirroring pre-war successes, the inclusion of a computer game, Racal's creation of the Vodaphone mobile phone network, and how we saved the Human Genome Project for mankind from Evil Corporate America, Francis Spufford has created a fascinating book that should appeal to both layman and geek alike.
chapter preview

  Book: Backroom Boys
  sa110_mk (17:08 29/11/2004)
  philipnet (13:17 30/11/2004)
    richcheng (13:29 30/11/2004)
      rich (14:50 1/12/2004)
Paul Stewart Message #93223, posted by sa110_mk at 17:08, 29/11/2004
Posts: 144
"Backroom Boys", sounds like the title of a gay porn movie!!!
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
Philip Ludlam Message #93224, posted by philipnet at 13:17, 30/11/2004, in reply to message #93223
Posts: 1
No, that would be "Back Door Boys"
- not that I know about such things ;-) !
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richard cheng Message #93225, posted by richcheng at 13:29, 30/11/2004, in reply to message #93224

Posts: 655
There was an edited extract of this chapter of the book in the guardian yonks ago, and it may or may not have been previously mentioned in the playpen/ntk/boing boing.

You can read it here!


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Richard Goodwin Message #93226, posted by rich at 14:50, 1/12/2004, in reply to message #93225
Dictator for life
Posts: 6828
  ^[ Log in to reply ]

The Icon Bar: News and features: Book: Backroom Boys