Boffins, baffles and gadgetry ...

Sometimes one grows up using an expression which has entered the language at some point, you have heard your parents use it, and have heard others use it, and even used it yourself in your own career and environment. Then it comes as a surprise to learn that not only does not everyone understand it, some have never even heard it. Thus it was when Janet Angelo, the editor of the latest Harry Heron adventure, The Outer Edge, dropped me an email asking what the term "boffin" meant. It is one I have heard my father, my grandfather, various officers and non-commissioned officers use and have used myself in my own service career in the Fire and Emergency Services.

So, if Janet didn't know it, where does it come from?

The term apparently originated in WW1 when there were a lot of 'gentleman inventors' suddenly deluging the Navy and Army with wonderful ideas for super weapons. A little digging was required, to unearth some, at least, of the background to it. Firstly, it was used, sometimes in a derogatory way, by members of the Armed Forces in WW1 to refer to anyone who was a bit of an intellectual, always coming up with grand ideas. It really came into its own - and the first reference I managed to find of its use in a document, was a note from Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, in reference to a gentleman who had a grand invention he was convinced would destroy any submarine. My dictionary tells me that in WW2 it was the RAF who used it most extensively to mean a scientist or technical expert carrying out work for the RAF, but my father served in the RN and it was extensively used in that service to mean the same thing. 
There was a similar surge in such wonderful inventions in WW2 and Winston Churchill was a great fan of some of these. Like a device called "The Great Panjandrum", a huge rolling cylinder with rockets mounted on the outer sides of the 'wheels' to propel it forward. It was supposedly steerable with cables attached to the central axis on each side. The idea being that one of these would roar up a beach clearing mines, machine gun nests and obstacles so the infantry could run behind it and reach their objectives. Pity it couldn't be controlled and was almost as dangerous to it's own side as it was a threat to the enemy. There were plenty of other equally zany ideas, but many actually did work. Such as the bouncing bombs used to break dams, or get inside U-boat pens. Or the miniature submarines, radar, what is today called Sonar, but known to the RN as ASDIC. Or one specially for D-Day called PLUTO - Pipe Line Under The Ocean - a large diameter hose, rolled onto a floating cylinder, which was then towed across the English Channel, hauled ashore in Normandy and fed fuel for tanks, trucks, air craft and everything else until the German Forces could be dislodged from harbours and normal supplies established.
The usual routine would be the 'boffins' would come up with a wonderful idea, the engineers would attempt to make it, and Jolly Jack (under the profane guidance of a three badge Petty Officer) would be tasked with making it work. The guys tasked with setting up these trials always said the 'boffin' was usually some quietly spoken grandfather type, fussing round his brainchild and never quite sure what it actually would do, but "I think I've got the bugs out of it now …" 

Jolly Jack Tar usually added a rider to the general definition, probably since most of the "experts" he encountered sometimes appeared to have only incidental contact with reality. As my father once told me, with some of the 'boffins' they encountered, if he said "Oops" everyone dived for cover.

A 'boffin' is always the one poking around in some new weapon, guidance system, propulsion unit or fancy piece of kit whose purpose was obscure, or which isn't behaving in the manner it is supposed to. My father used to say that often, when the boffins were standing round scratching their heads in bafflement because their latest toy wouldn't do whatever it was supposed to do, some Stoker or Torpedoman, Telegraphist or Electrician would be summoned. He'd look at it for a moment, open his tool kit, select an appropriate hammer, screwdriver or other suitable tool, wave it at the misbehaving machine, or deliver a sharp tap with the tool on a sensitive spot while all the boffins looked on in horror. Generally the thing would spring into life. As they say, it isn't fit for purpose if Jolly Jack can break it, or if it can't be fixed with a lump hammer, a screw driver or a plumbing wrench.
Having personally seen a Gunnery Petty Officer fix a jammed training ring on a missile launcher with a 2lb (1kg) lump hammer aimed at just the right place, I tend to understand this. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the marks of previous applications of said lump hammer might give a hint to what needed to be fixed. Even in my fire service career, I recall one of our vehicles that would flood its carburettor if it didn't fire up first time - and then refuse to start. Many 'expert' boffins fiddled and proclaimed it fixed, only to have it repeat the problem immediately they'd gone. Even replacing the carburettor didn't help. What did fix it instantly, was the application of a sharp tap with a long jack handle applied to a point on the carburettor. Since its first appearance, the term does seem to have broadened to embrace almost anyone who might be called a "technical expert" on something, as well as the traditional "intellectual" wandering into the realms of the practical.
There is a terrific story from WW2, when the battleship HMS Duke of York got into a scrap with the Scharnhorst. A shell from the Scharnhorst passed through the Duke of York's mast, cutting the cables for the radar rangefinders. The officer in the radar cabinet, just below the antenna on the mast, realised what had happened, climbed through the roof of the cabinet, found the break and calmly (remember he was something like 80 feet above the deck and it was blowing a full gale in the Arctic at the time) grabbed the flapping ends, and brought them together. There were three or four cables, and he tried each one in turn until his men shouted they had the signal back, then he twisted the broken ends together and they carried on. It was only much later that everyone else found out, and the 'boffins' declared that he should have been electrocuted because he was standing on steel, in normal sea boots (leather) working with high voltage cables with bare hands, and being drenched in freezing spray in a gale. No safety lines, no tools, just his hands in an exposed position under fire. He got the Dinstinguished Service Order for it later ... Thanks to this man, the radar was kept working, the big guns kept firing, and the Scharnhorst was sunk.
Another fabulous story on this comes from the first nuclear reactor, built as part of the Manhattan Project in a squash court under a baseball stadium. The piled graphite blocks into the space, inserted the nuclear fuel and then carefully, by hand, removed the 'control rods' until the reaction started up and heat was produced. It doesn't get much more experimental or basic than that. A case of "OK, guys, pull those rods out until I tell you to stop. We don't know what's going to happen, but we might get a reaction."
As I said, if the 'boffin' said 'Oops' everyone else looked for a place to hide.


1 comment

  • Laurentiu Istrate
    Laurentiu Istrate
    I really enjoyed the information.

    I really enjoyed the information.

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