Insights from the outside

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Tom Wilkie finds that literary flourish fails to mask a stereotypical perception of Britain's engineering talent

Backroom Boys: the secret return of the British boffin. By Francis Spufford. Faber and Faber pound;14.99.

I have never really liked essays. They prize elegance and wit over understanding and scholarship. To read an entire book of essays is to eat a meal composed completely of canapes, leaving one surfeited but still asking: "Where's the beef?" This book consists of six vignettes in the post-war scientific and technological history of Britain. A prose stylist of the highest order, Francis Spufford has a novelist's eye for the telling detail.

The book is peppered with insight as it ranges from Britain's abortive space-launcher programme through the development of Concorde and the technology of mobile phones, to the Human Genome Project, computer games and Mars landing craft. The book's high point is a heartening tale of altruism's triumph over avarice. Best of all, it gives due acknowledgement to the role of scientist-turned-bureaucrat Michael Morgan in ensuring that scientific knowledge of the human genome - the message of heredity written in all humanity's genes - remained in the public domain and was not appropriated for private commercial gain by a United States corporation.

Dr Morgan persuaded the Wellcome Trust - the world's richest charity - to use its wealth and influence to fund the brilliant John Sulston (now Sir John, and a Nobel Prize winner) to carry out genome research in the UK. The existence of this non-US programme allowed publicly funded researchers in the US to convince the US government to continue its funding in the face of competition from the private sector. Dr Morgan bent the Wellcome Trust's rules to do it; Sir John Sulston turned himself from a bench-top individualist researcher into the Henry Ford of a quasi-industrial scientific production line. Together, they ensured that knowledge of our own genetic make-up is forever the common heritage of mankind.

I was working for the Wellcome Trust (in another department) during some of this period, and it is pleasing to see that magnificent achievement accurately described. The genome chapter is slightly anomalous, however, as it concerns a scientific project, whereas the other chapters are very much about engineering.

Books on engineering are as welcome as they are rare. They have to be written by outsiders, such as Francis Spufford, because many - perhaps most - British engineers are virtually illiterate. My daily life includes a larger share than I would like of editing engineers' words and converting their eccentric punctuation, grammar and capitalisation into something approaching the English language. (Engineering illiteracy appears to be internationally endemic. A close friend who is a professional translator can often be heard swearing at the abuse of the German language as she attempts to render German engineering texts into English.) But the literary pretensions of this book are ultimately its weakness. The title, with its "backroom boys" and "boffins" is fatal for the project. The terms are inevitably condescending and come with detectable overtones of class distinction.

The author seems faintly surprised to find that British engineers live in suburbia. The majority of the population lives in suburbia, so where else would he expect to find engineers - trendy apartments in Islington? I lost count of the stereotypical references to "tweed jackets" and "leather arm patches". Would Spufford rather that engineers all dressed like marketing executives? And as Britain's mobile phone network hit a particularly difficult technical problem, we are told: "Egg sandwiches were removed from brown paper bags. Pipes were lit." Spufford was not at that crisis meeting, so it is not clear how he could know the colour of the sandwich bags. But who cares if it's true, as long as it's a witty line? After all, engineers do carry their sandwiches in brown paper bags. Don't they? And of course, no engineer has ever lit up a spliff rather than a pipe.

If the problem were merely the perpetuation of patronising attitudes by the literary side of the "two cultures", it would be but an irritant. But the combination of the literary genre - a novelist's focus on personalities - with the concept embodied in the title that engineering is a matter of individual boffins tinkering in the backroom leads to a fatal misjudgment about the nature of successful engineering (and industrial manufacturing) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is a misjudgment shared by the mercantile middle classes in Britain, of whom Margaret Thatcher was the outstanding representative, and it undoubtedly contributed to the wanton havoc she wreaked on our industrial capacity.

To see the error, one must look across the Atlantic. Why did the US and not the UK first make penicillin and the atomic bomb? Why, to use two examples from this book, did the US make the commercially successful airliner of the late 20th century, the jumbo jet, and prosecute a successful space project? The Americans understood that engineering is a collective endeavour, not a matter of boffins toiling alone in back rooms; that project management must come before individual brilliance; that forward planning is almost always better than last-minute improvisation; and that mass production is more efficient than craft skills. But "Gantt charts", "project milestones" and "deliverables" - the essential tools of successful engineering project management - do not lend themselves to the elegance and wit necessary for an essay. This book is crippled from the outset.

There is insight and illumination here. Ultimately, however, this is less an attempt to bridge the gap between the two cultures, than a series of traveller's tales brought back from the other side by someone who took too much baggage and never fully understood the culture of which he was a tourist.

Dr Tom Wilkie is editor-in-chief at Europa Science, a Cambridge-based science publishing company

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