Cover image for The perfectionists : how precision engineers created the modern world / Simon Winchester.
The perfectionists : how precision engineers created the modern world / Simon Winchester.
Title Variants:
How precision engineers created the modern world
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2018]

Physical Description:
xii, 395 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
Stars, seconds, cylinders, and steam -- Extremely flat and incredibly close -- A gun in every home, a clock in every cabin -- On the verge of a more perfect world -- The irresistible lure of the highway -- Precision and peril, six miles high -- Through a looking glass, distinctly -- Where am I, and what is the time? -- Squeezing beyond boundaries -- On the necessity for equipoise -- The measure of all things.
"The revered New York Times bestselling author traces the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age to explore the single component crucial to advancement--precision--in a superb history that is both an homage and a warning for our future."


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The revered New York Times bestselling author traces the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age to explore the single component crucial to advancement--precision--in a superb history that is both an homage and a warning for our future.

The rise of manufacturing could not have happened without an attention to precision. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century England, standards of measurement were established, giving way to the development of machine tools--machines that make machines. Eventually, the application of precision tools and methods resulted in the creation and mass production of items from guns and glass to mirrors, lenses, and cameras--and eventually gave way to further breakthroughs, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider.

Simon Winchester takes us back to origins of the Industrial Age, to England where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who later exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. Winchester moves forward through time, to today's cutting-edge developments occurring around the world, from America to Western Europe to Asia.

As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world as it is, rather than the world as we think we would wish it to be? And can the precise and the natural co-exist in society?

Author Notes

Simon Winchester was born in London, England on September 28, 1944. He read geology at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. After graduation in 1966, he joined a Canadian mining company and worked as field geologist in Uganda. The following year he decided to become a journalist. His first reporting job was for The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1969, he joined The Guardian and was named Britain's Journalist of the Year in 1971. He also worked for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times before becoming a freelancer.

He is the author of numerous books including In Holy Terror, The River at the Center of the World, The Alice Behind Wonderland, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and.Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. In 2006, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to journalism and literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) smoothly mixes history, science, and biographical sketches to pay homage to the work of precision engineers, whom he credits with the creation of everything from unpickable locks to gravity wave detectors and the Hubble Telescope. He credits the start of modern precision engineering to "iron-mad" John Wilkinson, an eccentric 18th-century English engineer whose method for casting and boring iron cannons led to the manufacture of smooth-running pistons and cylinders that were then used in the steam engines of James Watt. The son of a precision engineer, Winchester clearly delights in the topic, relating his stories with verve, enthusiasm, and wit. Henry Royce and the Rolls-Royce automobiles he designed contrast with Henry Ford's inexpensive, "reliably unreliable" bare-bones assembly line cars. The author paints historic characters vividly, including engineer Joseph Whitworth, described as "large and bearded and oyster-eyed"; cabinet-maker Joseph Bramah, who patented the flush toilet; tech aficionado Prince Albert; and rapacious businessman Eli Whitney, who lied about using Frenchman Honoré Blanc's idea for standardized parts for flintlocks in his winning bid for a U.S. government contract for 10,000 muskets. Winchester's latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

The word "perfectionist" can conjure up the image of a fussy, slightly anxious person who needs to reiax more. The constant pursuit of the flawless can be exhausting. Nothing in our world, after all, is exactly perfect. But what if perfection is not only a goal for its own sake but something on which the lives of others depend? What if the slightest misalignment of a tiny tube in a jet engine could cause a fatal catastrophe? In "The Perfectionists," Simon Winchester celebrates the unsung breed of engineers who through the ages have designed ever more creative and intricate machines. He takes us on a journey through the evolution of "precision," which in his view is the major driver of what we experience as modern life. Our cars, planes, cellphones, washing machines, computers, every manufactured mechanism, are all the result of our pursuit of this fundamental concept. Winchester tells us that precision had a birth date. While our ancestors made some truly beautiful and impressive objects - like the ancient Greek "antikythera" mechanism used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses - it wasn't until the 19 th century and steam power that true precision engineering was born. It might be difficult to accept the notion that there was such a "precise" turning point in our history, but Winchester makes a convincing case. He tells us of the moment in his boyhood when his father brought a series of small metallic blocks - gauge blocks - to his London home. These blocks, carefully ground to exact specifications, could be stacked in different ways to make accurate lengths for measuring. As a 10-year-old, he watched in awe as his father lifted them from their velvet case. Young Simon was challenged to separate two blocks placed one on top of the other. He pulled at them to no avail. Then his father slid them apart with a flick of his wrist. As Winchester explains, the blocks were so perfectly flat that their surfaces bonded at a molecular level. The only way to separate them was by sliding them. This extreme flatness could be achieved only because humans had mastered precise manufacturing; and so, his fascination with the subject began. This expert working of metal is traced back to James Watt and his development of the steam engine. The first prototypes leaked copious amounts of steam and weren't very efficient. The problem was that the piston didn't fit exactly in its cylinder - small imperfections in the surfaces of both allowed pockets of air to escape. Watt enlisted the help of John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson, so called because of his expertise (even obsession) with metal. Wilkinson had previously patented a way to bore out precise cylinders for more accurate cannons, and he suggested the same method be applied to Watt's ill-fitting system. It worked, and the improved engine allowed the conversion of energy to movement on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution, Winchester declares, could now begin. Turning from engines to the vehicles they power, Winchester next introduces Henry Royce, a car aficionado. Royce tore apart a secondhand 10-horsepower twocylinder Decauville that he had purchased in 1903. Its design was chic but its mechanics sorely wanting. So component by component, Royce modified it. He added a water-cooled jacket to the front of the engine to prevent it from overheating. He created a highly accurate distributor to ensure that the cylinders were ignited at exactly the moment they felt the jolt of the gasolineand-air mixture that runs an internal combustion engine. As his business grew, he designed the iconic "Silver Ghost" that turned him into a household name. Despite this newfound fame, he kept his products extremely exclusive. At the car's peak popularity, the factories producing these luxurious machines made just two a day. From Royce's painstaking opulence, Winchester pivots to the mass-production innovations of Henry Ford. Here, he offers a fresh perspective on an oft-told story; yes, Ford brought a radical principle to manufacturing - completely interchangeable parts - but as Winchester makes clear, this idea would not have been feasible without precision engineering. Whereas Royce's cars were hand-assembled, requiring some filing to the components to ensure everything fit properly for each vehicle, Ford insisted that perfection in manufacturing would enable every part to be identical and thus easily and reliably fit together. One consequence of breaking products down into their components like this is that each part can simply be replaced when damaged - but until Ford came along, this principle didn't really exist (as Winchester explains in an earlier, less absorbing chapter about how guns used to be made individually without component parts). Interestingly, Winchester also discusses the social implications of precision on assembly lines. As factories became increasingly powered by mechanical means rather than manpower, it created a backlash from workers who found their jobs replaced, a reality still present today. For those not already convinced of the importance of precision engineering, there is the disconcerting story of a 2010 Qantas flight. The two-year-old double-decker aircraft's engine exploded in the air, putting the lives of nearly 450 people in grave danger. The failure was traced back to a tiny pipe that was machined only slightly imprecisely. The drill bit used to create the hole was misaligned, leaving the tube about half a millimeter too thin along one small portion of its circumference. Then there was the Hubble telescope, which turned out to be, at least initially, a national embarrassment. As the world anticipated the best images of space ever, they instead appeared blurry and unclear - a huge disappointment. The reason? The lens was out of alignment by just l/50th the width of a single human hair. Winchester leads us through increasing achievements in precision with the creation of global positioning satellites, the single-molecule thick material graphene and microprocessor chips (in this story we are introduced to the only female engineer in the book, whose name sadly has since been forgotten). As the levels of perfection become even harder to believe, Winchester starts to ask more philosophical questions: "Is such a wish for perfection truly essential to modern health and happiness, a necessary component of our very being?" While we continue to achieve the previously unachievable, he suggests, we must also start to wonder what it is we are truly seeking. Should we mindlessly applaud this drive toward exactitude as an obvious good? Winchester is reverent about the engineers he profiles, but he also sees the other side. As he travels east and showcases Japanese devotion to craftsmanship, particularly highlighted in that country's manufacture of precise timepieces, he reminds us of the beauty of imperfections as seen in bamboo handicrafts and handmade lacquerware, the inexactness of nature adding subtle eccentricities to our creations and, with them, charm. "The Perfectionists" succeeds resoundingly in making us think more deeply about the everyday objects we take for granted. It challenges us to reflect on our progress as humans and what has made it possible. It is interesting, informative, exciting and emotional, and for anyone with even some curiosity about what makes the machines of our world work as well as they do, it's a real treat. ? Should we mindlessly applaud this drive toward exactitude as an obvious good? roma AGRAWAL is the author of "Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures."

Library Journal Review

Winchester (Pacific) suggests that precision engineering allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur and has directly led to our current technological state. John Wilkinson became the father of precision when he developed in the 18th century a method of boring into cast iron to create identical cannons. Other people profiled here include British investor Henry -Maudslay, particularly his creation of locks and measuring machines; and British engineer Joseph -Whitworth, who pioneered the development of standardized screws and rifles. Winchester also discusses automobile production; for example, Henry Royce's craftsmen made all of his cars by hand. There would be small differences in each product, but the overall quality led to the high cost of Rolls-Royce vehicles. Henry Ford, however, aimed to make vehicles more affordable. To accomplish this, he had precision parts made on assembly lines. Winchester ends the book with concerns about the loss of craft and focuses on the Japanese method of carmaking, in which flaws are considered to be as beautiful as precision pieces. -VERDICT Fans of Winchester's previous best sellers will discover this latest to be a delightful and engaging study of the role of historical and modern technology.-Jason L. Steagall, -Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. xi
Prologuep. 1
Chapter 1 Stars, Seconds, Cylinders, and Steamp. 23
Chapter 1 Extremely Flat and Incredibly Closep. 53
Chapter 3 A Gun In Every Home, a Clock in Every Cabinp. 81
Chapter 4 On The Verge of a More Perfect Worldp. 107
Chapter 5 The Irresistible Lure Of The Highwayp. 129
Chapter 6 Precision and Peril, Six Miles Highp. 173
Chapter 7 Through a Glass, Distinctlyp. 215
Chapter 8 Where Am I, and What is the Time?p. 255
Chapter 9 Squeezing Beyond Boundariesp. 275
Chapter 10 On The Necessity for Equipoisep. 307
Afterword: The Measure of all Thingsp. 331
Acknowledgmentsp. 357
A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Termsp. 361
Bibliographyp. 369
Indexp. 375

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