The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
May 08, 2018
Simon Winchester's history of precision engineering is surprisingly wide-ranging and entertaining, and helped by the beauty and eloquence of his writing.
Simon Winchester opens his new book, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, with a story about his father that seems pulled from the movies:
It was a London winter evening in the mid 1950s, almost certainly wretched, with cold and yellowish smog. I was about ten years old, home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. My father had come in from his factory in North London, brushing flecks of gray industrial sleet from the shoulders of his army officers greatcoat. He was standing in front of the coal fire to warm himself, his pipe between his teeth.
His father had a very special box that, once opened, opened up a new world to young Simon. It seemed magical, but was in fact the result of scientific reason and measurement. There was a thin film of machine oil on the objects contained therein, oil that coated everything his father brought home from the shop floor, leaving a trail on the linen tablecloth that upset his mother. The box contained more than a hundred metal tiles, that "glinted in the coal fire's flames."
My father started to talk animatedly, excitedly, with a passionate intensity that I always liked. Metal tiles like these, he said, and with a very evident pride, are probably the most precise things that are ever made. They are called gauge blocks, or Jo blocks, after the man who invented them, Carl Edvard Johansson, and the are used for measuring things to the most extreme of tolerances—and the people who produce them work at the very summit of mechanical engineering. These are precious things, and I wanted you to see them, since they are so important to my life.
As it turns out, such instruments are important to all our lives—and to our very way of life in the modern world. And the notions of precision and tolerance mentioned in the story above are central to Winchester's new book. Winchester tells us another story at the beginning of the book about visiting his father's factory, of meeting a man who like his father "clasped a pipe between his teeth" as he worked, bending over a lathe turning out gearwheels that were "no more than a millimeter thick and perhaps a centimeter in diameter." They are meant for the Royal Navy, but the man parts with one as a gift to the boy.
They are of an earlier time, and much bigger gearwheels, but the image he paints brought to mind the industrial photographs of Roman Kwasniewski, who documented the places that made our hometown of Milwaukee "The machine shop of the world."
"Roman Kwasniewski’s 1924 photograph of a gear twice as tall as a man reflects industrial Milwaukee’s special skill in metal fabrication."
The Perfectionists is largely about creating machines that create other machines, machines that can make the same thing over and over agains, and can make them with precision. It is such precision that make our modern lives, well… modern—"our camera, our cellphone, our computer, our bicycle, our car, our dishwasher, our ballpoint pen." But in Winchester's telling, precision also "enjoys the trajectory of a narrative." That is, it all began somewhere. And that is the narrative Winchester weaves, from the earliest measurements that relied on the length of a pharaoh's forearm, to the most precise measuring instruments in the world today, which bear out Einstein's theory of relativity by revealing "without doubt that a series of gravitational waves, arriving after billions of years of travel from the universe's outer edges, had passed through the Earth and, for a fleeting moment of their passage, changed our planet's shape,"
He tells us how John Harrison's invention of precise-running clockwork led Britain to rule the world's oceans and seas for more than a century. He tells us of the ancient Antikythera mechanism, built in Greece and dating to the second century BC, and the maritime clocks that won John Harrison the Longitude reward. But the story—and the book—really begins when humans begin harnessing the power of steam at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and with a "rather little remembered" English Ironmaster, John Wilkinson.
It may seem a tedious subject at first, but the stories Winchester tells are surprisingly wide-ranging, interconnected, and entertaining, helped along by the beauty and eloquence of his writing. Winchester concludes with a visit to Japan and a rumination on mechanical watches, bamboo, the survival of craftsmanship, and whether there may be, in today's world, too much precision—and not enough appreciation for the imperfect. And, if you're interested in the history and "multitudinous mysteries" of measurement, or in the nature of time and gravity, The Perfectionists offers a 24-page afterword devoted to those topics that is itself worth the cost of the book. Of course, you can win a copy here for free.
We have 20 copies available.