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What are the chances that Britain might emerge within a few years as a science and technology superpower? If it depended on the number of titles in British bookshops devoted to popular science, the outlook would seem pretty encouraging. Books that can plausibly explain – or at least begin to simplify –the mysteries of arcane subjects from quantum physics to molecular biology command almost as many shelves as histories of the two world wars.
Both popular science and military history feature in my biography of the man who transformed the world of aero-engineering: JET MAN – The Making and Breaking of Frank Whittle, Genius of the Jet Revolution (published by Head of Zeus in December 2020, with a paperback edition in August 2021). Between 1929 and 1940 Whittle conceived, designed and built the first jet engine capable of powering an aeroplane in sustained flight. My account of this achievement seeks to give the reader a proper understanding of Whittle’s engine and how it worked. But Whittle’s story from 1940 onwards was inevitably shaped by the course of the Second World War. The book shows how and why the production of jet engines in wartime Britain slipped out of Whittle’s control and gave rise to a new future for the country’s aero-engineering industry – justifying the subtitle.
In October 2022, the judges of the Wadsworth Prize for business history announced their review of titles published in 2021 – and ‘highly commended’ by them was my account of one of the most colourful institutions in the financial world: CROSSING CONTINENTS: A History of the Standard Chartered Bank (published by Penguin Allen Lane in May 2021). The City of London once included a spread of ‘overseas banks’. These played a fundamental role in the financing of trade across the British Empire but have generally received scant attention from historians. The subject of this book grew over the course of more than 150 years, steadily expanding through mergers and corporate acquisitions. Tracking its evolution therefore meant engaging with the relationship between City and Empire over many generations, as a reviewer in The Financial Times generously acknowledged:
Duncan Campbell-Smith’s sparkling new account of Standard Chartered Bank … is a door-stopping, desk-breaking heavyweight tome … of patient text and brilliantly evocative photographs. Campbell-Smith, a former banker and journalist, had access to Standard Chartered’s rich archive, and what emerges is work of painstaking scholarship. Multiple sources are woven together into a compelling record of imperial and post-imperial banking, the white men responsible and the lives they led. (Philip Augar in FT Weekend, 5-6 June 2021)
The Wadsworth Prize is awarded annually, and in 2012 it went to my history of Britain’s postal services: MASTERS OF THE POST, The Authorized History of the Royal Mail (published by Penguin Alen Lane in November 2012, with a paperback edition in August 2012). The current scandal over the mistreatment by the Post Office of some of its self-employed postmasters and mistresses broke after the book’s publication. But its account of events in the late 1990s, when the seeds of the whole affair were sown, offers a critical background to what has been widely seen as the worst miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
These three books and two others published in earlier years are all featured on this website.