RogerBW's Blog

Backroom Boys, Francis Spufford 23 August 2021

2003 non-fiction, a study of six British post-war technological projects.

Well, sort of. The chapters deal with the British rocket programme and its end in Black Arrow and Prospero; the negotiations between government and business that kept Concorde flying in the early 1980s; the development of the computer game Elite; Vodafone and radio planning; the Human Genome Project and the attempts to keep the data proprietary; and the Beagle 2 lander.

And it's all right up to a point, but the writing is a strange combination of dreary and whimsical; Spufford drops in phrases like "the neutrinos that zipped straight through the earth like elusive streakers" and heads each chapter with panels from Dan Dare, but between those props the narrative sags along. This happened. That happened. He felt excited. The whole thing is dull, which when writing about events this complex and interesting seems nearly criminal.

I think he's trying to praise the British lone inventor or small company competing successfully with the big outsiders (usually American), but the stories don't convince. Spufford is full of enthusiasm for his subjects, but I didn't find it even slightly contagious.

He also takes things at a slant: for example, there's nothing about the design and construction of Concorde, only the brinkmanship between British Airways and the government in which both sides liked the idea of keeping Concorde flying but neither wanted to pay for it. Well, fine, but none of that was anything to do with technical challenges or small teams of people coming up with cunning answers, so…?

There are some interesting tidbits (Thorn EMI turned down the chance to publish Elite because they wanted it to be a simple ten minute experience like other games of the day), but a lot of it seems futile: Elite came out in the summer of 1984 and was a massive success, selling as many copies as BBC Micros existed at the time, but in spite of that by the spring of 1985 Acorn was owned by Olivetti and Acornsoft was just another business unit that never produced anything innovative again.

I don't know. Lots of people seem to love the thing. Maybe it's just me.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:50pm on 23 August 2021

    By 1985 most of the Acornsoft team had been merged into the main Acorn operation and were busy writing Arthur and RISC OS, the operating system for the Acorn Archimedes computers. One might argue that was the next innovative thing they produced, in that a small team wrote a complete operating system (depending on how you define it).

    But that ignores the fact that the Elite authors weren't Acornsoft employees anyway, they were freelancers. David Braben moved on to writing the PC version of Elite, whether that counts as innovative or simply trying to pay the mortgage using technology he already had is a moot point. Braben is still in the business, Elite Dangerous having brought Kickstarter and modern network multi player to the mix. Ian Bell went off to do other things.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:13pm on 23 August 2021

    My point is more that Acornsoft in 1982 could say "here's someone writing a sort of computer game that's never been done before; yes, we'll take a risk on it". And as a reward for that huge risk and huge success they got basically nothing.

    I wouldn't particularly expect the same authors to come up with a second amazingly successful thing; very few people can be Edgar Rice Burroughs, and invent both A Princess of Mars and Tarzan in the same year. But I might hope that a company which had done this once would try it a few more times. Risc OS wasn't an innovation in the way I'm thinking, given that GEM and Mac OS (and the early X Window System) were out there already; it did some things better than those systems, but it didn't have a compelling thing to offer that the competition couldn't do at all.

  3. Posted by John P at 11:58pm on 24 August 2021

    A browse through the Rainbow Codes listing on Wikipedia reveals a fascinating array of technology. My favourite is Blue Peacock (aka Brown Bunny).

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 10:39am on 25 August 2021

    I'm still rather fond of Green Grass, the Interim Megaton Weapon, which was arguably two of those things. It's the ball bearings, you know.

    And of course the utterly gorgeous and ferociously over-complex Green Mace anti-aircraft gun, which I've met in person.

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