The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
Author: Simon Winchester
Finished: June 11, 2019
Image from Amazon
In the pre-industrial world precision was unneeded. It was easy enough to live one’s life without knowing exactly what time it was or exactly how far apart two places were. All manufacturing was essentially done as “one offs” by craftsmen. This fascinating book tracks the increasing drive for precision that allowed the advancement of the industrial age. It starts with John Wilkinson’s development of a casting and boring process that improved the manufacture of canons. Without Wilkinson’s methodology James Watt’s steam engine may never have been successful. Precise boring of metal pieces were needed for the steam engine to work.
“For as James Watt later put it, ‘Mr. Wilkinson has bored us several cylinders almost without error, that of 50 inch diameter … does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.’ An old English shilling had a thickness of a tenth of an inch. This was the tolerance to which John Wiulkinson had ground out his first cylinder.”[p 51]
One tenth of an inch does not sound precise to us today, in the world of jet turbines and microchips it literally changed the world.
The next step was Henry Maudslay’s improvement of the lathe. Using the metal screws “made using his slide rest and his technique … could machine things to a standard of tolerance of one in one ten-thousandth of an inch.” [p 64]
“What Maudslay had done with his fully equipped lathe was to create an engine that, in the words of one historia, would become ‘the mother tool of the industrial age.'” [p 64]
With the ability to machine parts to this level of precision interchangeable pieces could be made. One of the early uses was in the development of pulley blocks used on sailing ships. A large ship had over a thousand of these blocks and the British navy was an enormous market as the navy increased in size to offset the threat of the French Revolution and later Napoleon.
Winchester continues the study through the development of the automobile – comparing and contrasting the Rolls Royce and the Model T Ford, jet engines, the Hubble telescope (and its repair) to computer chips. As for today’s microchips:
“The new machines no longer employ visible-light lasers, but what is known as extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation, and at a specific wavelength of 13.5 billionths of a meter.” [p 296]
The technology Winchester describes is fascinating on its own, but it is his writing that makes this just a pleasurable read. I love how he brings the characters to life and describes them in detail. I highly recommend it.