Sunday, 24 January 2010

The British boffin: an extinct species?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of the word 'boffin' is a person engaged in scientific research, frequently of a military nature. For the minority of Britons who still recognise the expression it often conjures up a time and a place, an evocation of Britain during the third quarter of the 20th century. Despite the Cold War, that era seems to have possessed a profound interconnection between societal and technological progress, a far cry from the frequent mistrust of science apparent today. From the Second World War until the 1970's these 'back-room wizards' were a familiar element of British society, sporting slide rules, briar pipes (women don't get much of a look-in for this genre), and a fondness for acronyms. Although the period saw great improvements in many aspects of applied science, from medicine to agriculture, it is largely aeronautical and astronautical projects that seem synonymous with the age of the boffin. Another curious aspect is that despite the military leanings of many boffin-run projects, the breed does not seem to have been of a more martial aspect than any other type of scientist or engineer.

One of the last gasps of boffinicity was Project Mustard, a prototypical example of scientific and technical genius combined with political and economic naivety. In the mid-1960's the Ministry of Aviation gave the British Aircraft Corporation financial support in the design of the Multi Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device (or MUSTARD), a reusable spaceplane that pre-empted the Space Shuttle. Although the intention was to make manned spaceflight much cheaper than via expendable rockets, it seems incredible that Britain could seriously consider such a project without American support. As it was, Project Mustard got little further than the drawing board and several patents filed in 1967.

The project existed at the tail end of several decades when many aspects of science and technology had becoming increasingly integrated into popular culture. British films of the 1940's and 50's fictionalised real-life boffins such as Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell (in the First of the Few) and the bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallis (of Dambusters fame), whilst furniture and fabrics utilised designs based on molecular biology and the atom. Due to American isolationism Britain managed to almost independently develop nuclear power stations and atomic bombs, along with the first commercial jet airliner (the de Havilland Comet), practical hovercraft and VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) technology, the latter being a rare post-war reversal whereby the USA bought from Britain. All this was achieved in spite of being the world's largest debtor and the sudden termination of Lend-Lease in 1945; perhaps the threat of a Soviet invasion aided productivity, but the level of British 'firsts' from the period is truly astonishing.

Unfortunately, beneath the surface there was an awful lot of hype. As early as the 1951 Festival of Britain the British economy was jokingly compared to that festival's Skylon structure, in that neither possessed a visible means of support. Throughout the 1950's and 60's financial shortfalls meant that research and development (and recalling the OED definition, in the Cold War that was frequently synonymous with the military) projects, were often obsolete prior to completion. Amongst the victims of financial problems, rapidity of technological progress, political prevarication, and even pressure from the USA (perish the thought), were the Bluestreak ballistic missile and its successors, mixed powerplant interceptors, and TSR-2, a strike aircraft that was impressive even by today's standards. The most farcical moment of all came in 1957 when Defence Minister Duncan Sandys published a white paper declaring that the future of aerial warfare lay solely in guided missiles. The Doctor Beeching-style cuts that followed led to the amalgamation or disappearance of most British aerospace companies and you would have thought, any pretension of Britain competing with the superpowers.

But the boffins weren't beaten yet. Whether it was too much boy's own science fiction (from radio's Journey into Space to comic hero Dan Dare) or even a desire to replace the rapidly disintegrating Empire with the conquest of outer space, private and public sector funding repeatedly initiated space-orientated projects that stood little chance of coming to fruition. In a joint venture with the forerunners of ESA (the European Space Agency), the Black Arrow rocket was used in 1971 for the only wholly-British satellite launch, Prospero X-3. Unfortunately this occurred three months after the project was cancelled, the irony being that the British technology involved proved more reliable than its French and German counterparts. Since then, British funding of joint space ventures has been desultory to say the least, only contributing about half of what France or Germany give to ESA.

All in all, it could be said that the day of the boffin is over. A turning point may be found in the environmental concerns over Concorde in the mid-1970's, leading to the project being recognised as an economic catastrophe. The high-technology failures represented in the disaster movies of the time are the antithesis of the glorification of machinery displayed in Thunderbirds less than a decade earlier. The seemingly Victorian notion that bigger, faster (and louder) equates to progress had been replaced by an understated, almost apologetic air surrounding research and development, even for projects of a primarily civilian nature. Not that this change of attitude initially had much effect on the military: more than half of Government R&D expenditure in the 1980's went to the Ministry of Defence, including the infamous (and cancelled) spy satellite, Project Zircon.

Two more examples from the eighties prove that any space-orientated scheme would now have to undergo prompt and rigorous economic assessment. British Aerospace's Spacelab experiment pallets for ESA were extremely successful, but let's face it; this was a relatively dull project by any standard. The antithesis was another acronym-laden project: HOTOL, the Horizontal Take-Off and Landing pilotless spaceplane, which received Government funding in the mid-eighties. Unfortunately, the potential two or more decade development schedule, combined with an estimated total cost of around £5 billion and lack of MoD interest (the revolutionary engine design being classified), led to the withdrawal of official involvement after several years.

All of the above suggests that twentieth-century Britain had a tradition of wasting vast amounts of time, energy, and occasionally public money, on paper-only projects ranging from blue-sky thinking to the genuinely hare-brained. Yet some schemes show more than an element of genius. In the 1930's, members of the British Interplanetary Society developed a manned lunar lander mission that foreshadowed many elements of Project Apollo to an astonishing degree. Whereas teams in Germany and the USA were developing liquid-fuelled rockets at the time, British law prohibited rocket-building by private citizens. Perhaps this aided the notion that projects on the drawing board were as valuable as those involving nuts and bolts; thus the image of the boffin as slightly detached from politico-economic reality was born.

A recent project that could claim identification with the boffin model was Beagle 2, a shoestring-budgeted Mars lander jointly funded by the private and public sectors and combining the talents of academics and industry under the exceedingly boffin-like Colin Pillinger. The acronym-heavy craft proved where the project's sympathies lay, ranging from a robotic arm called the PAW (Payload Adjustable Workbench) to its PLanetary Undersurface TOol, or PLUTO.

With follow-up Beagle 3 cancelled in 2004 after the disappearance and presumed destruction of its predecessor, you might think that would be the final nail in the boffin coffin (groan). But the HOTOL designers have been quietly beavering away for the last few decades and a new project has risen from the ashes of the original. Skylon, a spaceplane named after the 1951 Festival of Britain structure, received a boost last year from a £900,000 ESA contribution towards its £6m million SABRE (Synergic Air BReathing Engine) research project. Initially unmanned, the craft even has the potential of housing a cabin for up to forty passengers. With an estimated first flight around 2020 the project offers hope of a cheaper reusable spacecraft, but a combination of the current economic downturn and the history of similar projects do not bode well; estimates suggest that even the British military will face budget cuts of eleven to twenty-five percent over the next six years.

So what next for boffindom? International collaboration on the aerospace and astronautics front is obviously the only way forward for Britain, but whether the tradition of idealistic, even eccentric, inventor / designer / engineers can prevail is anyone's guess. Recent news stories mention boffins at CERN (home to the Large Hadron Collider) and even in Japan (where they have successfully bred transparent animals, no less), but for me the archetypal boffin will always be British and skyward-looking, regardless of whether they smoke a briar pipe or not.

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