Memoirs of a Boffin

A personal account of life in the 20th Century.

“Memoirs of a Boffin” formerly “Radar to the Future”

Copyright 1995, J. Rennie Whitehead
All rights reserved.

Note: These memoirs cover the years 1917-1985, with partial updating to 2005.
The updating continues.


In 1939, I was lucky enough to become one of the “backroom boys” in the early days of radar – one of the young civilian research scientists who were more or less affectionately referred to by the Royal Air Force as “boffins”. Our base of operations was known simply as TRE.

Thanks to the vision of a few enlightened people, some of them featured in these pages, we were given freedom, responsibility and authority far beyond our years. Otherwise, we took it by becoming expert at evading the bureaucracy. We were able to influence the course of the war, almost from day to day. We worked long and hard on those essential devices which made up the radar system. But the RAF was hungry for them – their lives often depended on them – and, after we had gained their confidence, we had few delays or frustrations in turning a new idea into tangible hardware and nursing its introduction into RAF operations.

I think that many of us who went through that wartime experience, as boffins, have felt that nothing that followed was quite like it. The experience affected our ways of thinking and behaving. Certainly, in my case, the pace of achievement during those few short years in TRE from 1939 to 1945 (and, to an extent, for different reasons, from 1945 to 1949) has left me perpetually impatient with bureaucracies (whether in government, industry or university) that worship procedure but shun innovative action.

After that first exciting career in defence research, I have also been fortunate to serve through three or four other careers, including research in two universities and in a multi-national industry, followed by a decade at the centre of government and a few years as a private consultant. I have been privileged to spend a good part of my time during the last 20 years working, in the context of the Club of Rome and its National Associations, towards a better future for coming generations. We have lived in three countries and have visited many others. The opportunities to travel widely, including some excursions into the Third World were a richly appreciated bonus. The friends I made on the way will never be forgotten. I hope this book conveys some of the excitement, the achievements and, even the odd, inevitable disappointment that were a part of that experience.

This book is dedicated to my wife, Nesta, who was also a member of TRE and is still, after more than fifty years, a constant source of support and inspiration.

J.R.W. August 2005

Preface: What’s a Boffin?

The following definitions are quoted from the entry in a Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary: (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary; Volume III: A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary; Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1987)

Boffin: [Etym. unknown. Numerous conjectures have been made about the origin of the word but all lack foundation].”

“A person engaged in backroom scientific or technical research. Hence boffin(e)ry, boffins collectively; also the activity of a boffin.”

“The term seems to have been first applied by members of the Royal Air Force to scientists working on radar.”

1945 Times 15 Sept. 5/4: A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves the “boffins”.

1948 N. Shute, NoHighway III. 61 “What’s a boffin?”. “The man from Farnborough. Everybody calls them boffins. Didn’t you know?”......”Why are they called that?” “....Because they behave like boffins, I suppose”.

1948, Lord Tedder in A.P. Rowe One Story of Radar p. vii, “I was fortunate in having considerable dealings in 1938-40 with the ‘Boffins’ (as the Royal Air Force dubbed the scientists affectionately)”.

1952 Picture Post 30th Aug. 20/I. Only a backroom boffin out of touch with the classroom could hold this pious belief.

1954 Economist 19th June suppl 6/3. The graduate from research - roughly....the boffin of industry.

1957 R. Watson-Watt Three Steps to Victory xxxiii 20I The proud title of boffin was first conferred on radar scientists by Royal Air force Officers with whom they worked in close cooperation...... I am not quite sure about the true origins of this name of Boffin. It certainly has something to do with an obsolete type of aircraft called the Baffin, something to do with that odd bird the Puffin; I am sure it has nothing at all to do with that first literary Back Room Boy, the claustrophiliac Colonel Boffin.

1958 Times LitSup 14 Feb 83/3 In one of those diverting interludes.....he writes an anatomy of Boffinry.

1958 Economist 25 Oct 298/I “The unexpected success of the boffins’ conference at Geneva.... ending in agreement on the feasibility of controlling a nuclear test suspension.”

1960 J. Maclaren Ross Until Day viii, 132, “I was engaged in some Boffinry in a blasted back-room unit”.