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Boffin is a British slang term for a scientist, engineer, or other person engaged in technical or scientific research and development. The World War II conception of boffins as war-winning researchers lends the term a more positive connotation than related terms such as nerd, egghead, geek or spod.[citation needed] A "boffin" was viewed by some in the regular services as odd, quirky or peculiar, though quite bright and essential to helping in the war effort.



The origins and etymology of boffin are obscure. A link to the mathematician and evolutionary theorist Buffon has been proposed.[1] Alternatively, linguist Eric Partridge proposed the term derived from Nicodemus Boffin, the good-hearted 'golden dustman' character who appears in the novel Our Mutual Friend (1864/5) by Charles Dickens, described there as a "very odd-looking old fellow indeed". In the novel, Mr Boffin pursues a late-life education, employing Silas Wegg to teach him to read.[2]

William Morris has a man called Boffin, based on Charles Dickens and said to be a variant of 'Biffin', meet the newly arrived time traveller in his novel News from Nowhere (1890). Dickens had referred to a 'Miss Biffins', an artist with only vestigial arms and legs, in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). Thus at this time a 'Boffin' is a good-hearted person who has suffered from 'hard times', been ill-regarded, taken an opportunity to better themselves and done well, demonstrating remarkable social mobility. Possibly ill-favoured in appearance, possibly artistic.


The Oxford English Dictionary quotes use in The Times in September 1945:[3]

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

Malvern was home to both TRE and RRDE, who were later merged into RRE. It supported all the services. The then superintendent of TRE, A.P. Rowe used the term to refer to earlier R.A.F. usage[4] and by 1942 an RAF training film (School for Secrets) the word was cited as armed-forces slang for an RAF technician or research scientist.

A key innovation was Rowe's 'Sunday Soviets'.[5][6] These reflected the lessons identified from the Great War as reflected in the Haldane principle,[7] but adapted to suit the operational challenges. They allowed the boffins both to contribute more, and to be more recognized.[8]

The founder of the organization that became TRE, Robert Watson-Watt cites Air Vice-Marshal G. P. Chamberlain, who played a vital part in the use of radar to defeat night-bombers, as the source.[9] Chamberlain claimed that 'A Puffin, a bird with a mournful cry, got crossed with a Baffin,[10] a mercifully obsolete Fleet Air Arm aircraft. Their offspring was a Boffin, a bird of astonishingly queer appearance, bursting with weird and sometimes inopportune ideas, but possessed of staggering inventiveness, analytical powers and persistence. Its ideas, like its eggs, were conical and unbreakable. You push the unwanted ones away, and they just roll back.'".[11][12] A naval origin is supported by reports of an anti-submarine trial by HM Signal School April 1 1941 based on equipment from TRE. [13] Eric Partridge, in his dictionary of slang, noted that the word had been used in the Royal Navy as "an unkind term for any officer over forty", but this usage seems to have been overshadowed by that referred to by the OED, above.

Of its etymology Sir Robert himself wrote: “I am not quite sure about the true origins of this name of Boffin. ... I am sure it has nothing at all to do with that first literary “Back Room Boy,” the claustrophiliac Colonel Boffin, who as you remember never overtly emerged from his back room, although his voice was clearly audible from it. It is the very essence of the Boffin that he should emerge frequently and almost aggressively from the Back Room to which, however, he must return on his missions of interpretation and inspiration.” [9]

The origin of the term appears to be Naval, rather than Air, but its main usage seems to have originated with Naval officers working with civilian radar 'boffins' under Rowe and quickly adapted by other servicemen and boffins themselves.



The word made a few appearances in literature prior to World War II. J. R. R. Tolkien used Boffin as a surname for a hobbit family in The Hobbit (1937) (deriving the name from an Oxford family of bakers and confectioners. This family provides the main heroes, who meet Dicken's mould and are also small, like Sarah Biffen. There is also a Sergeant Boffin in Tolkien's Mr. Bliss (written around 1932, published 1982).

World War II[edit]

War-time reference to scientist was particularly associated with the members of the team that worked on radar at Bawdsey Research Station under Sir Robert Watson-Watt, but also with mathematicians like Alan Turing, aeronautical engineers like Barnes Wallis and their associates, and the scientists of the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development.[citation needed]

Watson-Watt cites Robert Hanbury Brown as the prototypical boffin, who notes: "It is quite wrong to use the word ‘boffin’ simply to describe a scientist or technician; a boffin is essentially a middleman, a bridge between two worlds ...".[14]

Alternatively, Lindemann noted that Mervyn O'Gorman had inaugurated the use of scientific methods in aeronautical development at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, developing a cadre of 'leaders and explorers' who have retrospectively been termed 'boffins'.[15][11] Some "have been careful to differentiate between the true boffin and the 'nark', who was a member of the scientific staff of the Experimental Flying Section at Farnborough.'[11][12] Similarly, the Secretary of State for War cites the contribution of an operational analyst to the U-boat war in 1943[16].”

Robert Watson-Watt,[17] provided the following definition: "The Boffin is a researcher, of high scientific competence, who has learned that a device of great technical elegance, capable of a remarkable performance in the hands of a picked crew, is not necessarily al good weapon of war. He (sic) is the instrument for building into the design provisions which depend on close analysis of the vehicle in which the device is to operate, the field conditions in which it is to operate and above all things, the competence of those who are to operate, maintain, and repair it. He alone can save us from the danger of engendering electronic dinosaurs; he alone can provide on the one hand the knowledge on which the machine can be measured to the man and on the other, the knowledge on which can be based the selection, training, and (this is important) the inspiration of the normal human beings on whom its successful use, in the end, must rest. He must have an understanding and an appreciation of these normal human beings. He can reach these only through having their confidence. He is a middleman, but he is a middleman who can effect enormous economies and enormous increases in efficiencies. He is a rare bird, but he should be free to flit over the whole field of defense science, its origins, and its applications." He also noted that “It is a term of respect, and admiration, but particularly a term of affection—an affection which is expressed, as is the English way, in a slightly outside-in, jocular way so that the affection and admiration may not be regarded as too demonstrative.”

Thus a Boffin seems the type of person described by Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7) who, in his advice to the Admiralty, made an important distinction when he said that 'if, instead of sending observations of seamen to able mathematicians on land, the land would be able to send able mathematicians to sea, it would signify much more to the improvement of navigation and the safety of men's lives and estates on that element.'

Watson-Watt stated that 'the bill of the boffin has two separate functions. One is to poke into other people's business and the other is to puncture 'the more highly coloured and ornate eggs of the "Lesser Back Room Bird", which are quite inappropriate to the military scene.' Henry Tizard has also been regarded as the prototypical boffin.[11] More widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, to confuse eavesdroppers or spies.[citation needed]

Cold War[edit]

In 1952 the Secretary of State for War noted the need to develop 'Colonel Boffins' at Shrivenham (1952).[18] Notably, Richard Vincent acquired the nickname 'the boffin' after working at Malvern (1960-62) as a Gunnery Staff Captain and, via RMCS Shrivenham, rosing to become Chief of the Defence Staff (United Kingdom).[19]

In the 12 January 1953 issue of Life magazine, a short article on Malcolm Compston depicted him testing "the Admiralty's new plastic survival suit" in the Arctic Ocean; the article, entitled "Cold Bath for a Boffin", defines the term for its American audience as "civilian scientist working with the British Navy" and notes that his potentially life-saving work demonstrates "why the term 'boffin', which first began as a sailor's expression of joking contempt, has become instead one of affectionate admiration".[20]

By 1962 Boffins were characterised as 'the man (sic) who could understand the viewpoint of the Services, who worked with them, and who frequently shared their dangers'[11] and R V Jones, wartime head of scientific intelligence, was referred to as a boffin.[21][22] By the late 60s the term was sometimes being used to include all scientists who had worked at Malvern, irrespective of how closely they worked with the services, even 'backroom' staff.[23]

Popular Culture[edit]

Boffin continued, in the immediate postwar period, to carry some of its wartime connotation, as a modern-day wizard who labours in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. For example, the comics of the period depicted them as developing imaginative machines.[24] However, their more nuanced wartime role was not reflected in popular culture, such as the 1951 Festival of Britain [25] and the term was even used in the UK parliament (1953) to refer to boffins as narrow academics.[26]

The image of the technical boffin-hero was popularised by Nevil Shute's novel No Highway (1948), PaulBrickhill's non-fiction book The Dambusters (1951) and Shute's autobiography Slide Rule (1954). Films of The Small Back Room (1948), No Highway (1951, as No Highway in the Sky), and The Dambusters (1954) also featured boffins as heroes, as did stand-alone films such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Sound Barrier (1952).[citation needed] John Wyndham's novel The Kraken Wakes (1953) includes a song called "The Boffin's Lament" or "The Lay of the Baffled Boffin", with Naval Boffins.

A 1959 biography refers to 'muzzle-headed boffins in cob-webby small backrooms'.[27] Between 1970 and 1972 there was a British TV children's comedy Bright's Boffins which may have informed usage. By the 1980s boffins were relegated, in UK popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q, the fussy armourer-inventor in the James Bond films, and the term itself gradually took on a slightly negative connotation.[28] Thus, by the late 1990s, while the need for 'high-calibre' research staff with 'intimate knowledge' of users and their potential needs was well recognized, the term 'boffin' was no longer used in its original sense, lest it conjure up images of 'mad scientists'.[29] [30] [31] [32] This changed after 2003, with Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin.[33] By 2009 a popular history noted how enthusiastic 'home-taught boffins' and academics contributed to both world wars, and came to have 'key positions in directing the war effort'[34] and a nostalgic popular book[24] to accompany the Science Museum's 'Dan Dare and the Birth of High-Tech Britain' Exhibition described the optimism as the war-time boffins turned their attention to turning Britain into 'a place of ingenious, and beautifully crafted home-spun technology and design', until thwarted by the consumerist policies of Harold Macmillan. Norman Foster is cited as carrying forward the spirit of the boffin.

The Demise of the Boffin[edit]

The war was a time at which many industries were "partly rationalize and taken under Whitehall control", notably aircraft production under Lord Beaverbrook. This "was one small example of the kind of jump in efficiency Britain failed to show before the war, and would fail to show again soon afterwards. ... This was a mobilized country: but it was a mobilized country of craftsmen and small traders." [34] The contribution of boffins also fitted this pattern: with the end of the war many, including Rowe, left Malvern and working conditions gradually changed to become part of the emerging 'military-industrial complex', with more focus on scientists and technologists being contractors rather than advisers.[5][6] By 1959 boffins had become under-appreciated, under-valued and under-used, to the extent that the post-war vision of an integrated approach to the development and use of the sciences was never fully realized.[25] Boffins in the sense of Watson-Watt and Rowe had largely moved on by the mid 1980s, following 'dramatic' changes to working arrangements.[35][36][37] There is now a broader recognition by government scientists and academics that the controversial Rothschild report of 1971 led to a lack of appreciation of the need for science-based policy advice.[37]


  1. ^ Ross, Sidney (1991). Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science. Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 32. ISBN 0-7923-1308-9. With so much in doubt about the source of the term, its derivation from Huxley’s set of Buffon on board H.M.S. Rattlesnake has a better claim to be true than many another conjecture.
  2. ^ Dickens, Charles (2008). Our Mutual Friend. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-19-953625-2.
  3. ^ "boffin, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (Second 1989; online version September 2011 ed.). September 2011 [1989]. First published in A Supplement to the OED I, 1972.
  4. ^ Rowe, A.P. (1948). One story of radar. Cambridge University Press. pp. vii. I was fortunate in having considerable dealings in 1938–40 with the ‘Boffins’ (as the Royal Air Force affectionately dubbed the scientists).
  5. ^ a b Bud, Robert; Gummett, Philip. Introduction: Don't you know there's a war on?. pp. 6–17, 25, 26. In Bud & Gummett (1999)
  6. ^ a b Agar, John; Hughes, Nigel. Open Systems in a Closed World: Ground and Airborne Radar in the UK, 1945-90. pp. 219–223. In Bud & Gummett (1999)
  7. ^ The Viscount Haldane of Gloan (Chairman); E.S. Montagu; Sir Robert L. Morant; Sir George H. Murray; Colonel Sir Alan Sykes; J.H. Thomas; Mrs Sidney Webb (1918). "Report of the Machinery of Government Committee" (PDF). HMSO. Retrieved 4 November 2020. It appears to us that adequate provision has not been made in the past for the organised acquisition of facts and information; and for the systematic application of thought, as preliminary to the settlement of policy and its subsequent administration. ... There are well-known spheres of action in which the principle has been adopted of placing the business of enquiry and thinking in the hands of persons definitely charged with it, whose duty is to study the future, and work out plans and advise those responsible for policy or engaged in actual administration. The reason of the separation of work has been the proved impracticability of devoting the necessary time to thinking out organisation and preparation for action in the mere interstices of the time required for the transaction of business. ... . [The] principle ought by no means to be limited in its application to military and naval affairs Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Llewellyn, A.I. "A.P.Rowe and his 'Sunday Soviets'". Centre for The History of Defence Electronics. Bournemouth University, Oral History Unit. Retrieved 4 November 2020. Whilst at Worth in 1940, he conceived the idea of inviting senior military personnel to visit TRE on Sundays to meet with the rest of the research engineers and scientists working in the team. These gatherings were very informal and even the most junior staff were encouraged to contribute their ideas. If an idea was put forward that had merit, it could be adopted there and then because all the main decision-makers would be there. Such informality (and trust) at such a powerful level was unprecedented. A great sense of purpose was thus built up between the researchers and the military decision-makers
  9. ^ a b Watson Watt, Sir Robert Alexander (1957). Three steps to victory: A personal account by Radar’s greatest pioneer. Odham's Press. pp. 201/2.
  10. ^ In service 1934-1941.
  11. ^ a b c d e Ronald W. Clark, The Rise of the Boffins, Phoenix House, 1962
  12. ^ a b Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press, 2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  13. ^ Howse, Derek (1993). Radar at Sea: The Royal Navy in World War. Macmillan Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-349-13062-7. [We] played cards waiting for the weather to deteriorate. At last it did & both ‘boffins’ were so sick that they could only just make it to the set. … [They] turned over to me all the drawings of circuits and layout etc., & wished me luck … They couldn’t get away quick enough! [Sub-Lieutenant Orton, RNVR].
  14. ^ Hanbury Brown, Robert (1991). Boffin: a personal story of the early days of radar, radio astronomy and quantum optics. Adam Hilger.
  15. ^ The Earl of Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds: The Official Life of F.A. Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell, Collins, 1961
  16. ^ Noel-Baker, Philip (17 March 1947). "Air Estimates, 1947-48". Hansard. 435. [The] new idea of planned flying and planned service [due to] a "boffin," Dr Cecil Gordon, of the University of Aberdeen, [who used to work] on the ambiguous task of breeding flies.
  17. ^ Sir Robert Watson-Watt, The Natural History of the Boffin, Proceedings of the Institute of Radar Engineers, 1953, page 1699
  18. ^ Head, Antony (10 March 1952). "Army Estimates, 1952-53 ..." Hansard. 497. Retrieved 25 August 2020. David Low could very well bury "Colonel Blimp" and ... I suggest "Colonel Boffin" because the Army is becoming very technical.
  19. ^ "Field Marshal Lord Vincent obituary", 13 September 2018, The Times
  20. ^ "Cold Bath for a Boffin". Life (volume 34, no. 2). Time Inc. 12 January 1953. p. 96. ISSN 0024-3019. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
  21. ^ Ireland, Edward (8 October 1962). "Wolverhampton was saved by an unknown boffin". Express and Star (Wolverhampton).
  22. ^ Goodchild, James Martinson (March 2013). "R.V. Jones and the Birth of Scientific Intelligence". Thesis. University of Exeter. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  23. ^ Captain Spencer Freeman CBE, Production under Fire, C J Fallon, 1967
  24. ^ a b Ed. Daniel TatarskyEagle Annual of the Cutaways, Orion Books,2009 ISBN 9781409100140
  25. ^ a b Prof. Jardine, Lisa (2010). "The 2009 C.P. Snow Lecture: C.P. Snow's Two Cultures Revisited" (PDF). Christ's College Magazine (235): 49–57. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 April 2012.
  26. ^ Page, Graham (24 February 1956). "Industry and Commerce (Productivity)". Hansard. 549. Retrieved 25 August 2020. [The] man on the job often thinks of [a better way of doing something] than the backroom boys with their research, the boffins with their theories and the work-study wallahs with their statistics.
  27. ^ Lampe, David (1959). Pyke:the unknown genius. London: Evans Brothers. p. 95.
  28. ^ "Who are you calling a boffin?", 24 September 2010, Jenny Rohn, The Guardian
  29. ^ Eds. Robert Bud and Philip Gummett, Cold War Hot Science, Harwood, 1999 ISBN 9057024810
  30. ^ Quinn, Jennifer (27 May 2004). "In defence of the boffin". BBC NewsOnline Magazine. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
  31. ^ Frayling, Christopher (9 May 2006). "All Boffins are Bonkers". The Telegraph. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
  32. ^ Harkin, James (19 December 2017). "How bumbling British Boffins became a standing Russian joke". New Scientist. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
  33. ^ Francis Spufford (2003). Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-21497-5.
  34. ^ a b Marr, Andrew (2009). The Making of Modern Britain. London: Pan Macmillan. pp. 171, 269, 355, 381, 418, 419. ISBN 978-1-4472-2054-1.
  35. ^ Robinson, Stephen. Government Management of Defence Research since the Second World War. pp. 394–410. many scientists scorn the title 'research manager' as a contradiction in terms. In Bud & Gummett (1999)
  36. ^ Burrows, Stephen; Layton, Michael (2018). Top Secret Worcestershire. Warwickshire: Brewin Books. p. 138. ISBN 978-1-85858-581-9. non technological changes such as focused research, a customer-supplier relationship and budgetary pressures and full economic costing/control all began to affect us.
  37. ^ a b Parker, Miles (2 August 2016). "The Rothschild report (1971) and the purpose of government-funded R&D—a personal account". Palgrave Communications. 2 (16053). doi:10.1057/palcomms.2016.53. Retrieved 25 October 2020. However distinguished, intelligent and practical scientists may be, they cannot be so well qualified to decide what the needs of the nation are, and their priorities, as those responsible for ensuring that those needs are met. [This was] an attack on the unity of research and the autonomy of researchers and the Haldane Principle.

Further reading[edit]

  • Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (2005)
  • George Drower, Boats, Boffins and Bowlines: The Stories of Sailing Inventors and Innovations, The History Press (2011)
  • Alfred Price, Instruments of Darkness: The Struggle for Radar Supremacy, Kimber, London (1967)
  • R. V. Jones, The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence, 1939-1945, Coward McCann Geoghegan (1978)
  • Eds. Robert Bud and Philip Gummett, Cold War Hot Science, Harwood (1999) ISBN 9057024810

External links[edit]