How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
Publication Date: May 8, 2018
An ingenious argument that the dazzling advances that produced the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the revolutions that followed owe their success to a single engineering element: precision. Early on in this entertaining narrative, bestselling journalist and historian Winchester (Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, 2015), whose father "was for all of his working life a precision engineer," points out that James Watt (1736-1819) invented a vastly improved steam engine, but John Wilkinson (1728-1808) made it work. Watt's pistons generated enormous energy but moved inside handmade sheet metal cylinders that leaked profusely under the pressure. After years of frustration, he was rescued by Wilkinson, who had invented a machine that bored a precise hole through a solid block of iron. It had already revolutionized cannon manufacture, and it did the same for Watt's steam engine. Human precision made the Rolls-Royce, which earned the reputation "for precision products made beyond consideration of price," expensive, but engineering precision made the Model T cheap. An assembly line must stop if one mass-produced part doesn't fit perfectly into the next, so Henry Ford spared no expense to ensure that it did. Winchester tells the story of a series of increasingly impressive inventions, usually introduced by a journalistic "hook" to engage readers—e.g., an account of an explosion aboard the world's largest commercial airliner in 2010 precedes his history of the jet engine. In the final chapter, the author does not deny that something vital is lost when human craftsmanship bows before technical perfection, but it's clear where his heart lies. He sought some answers in Japan, which displays "an aesthetic sensibility wherein asymmetry and roughness and impermanence are accorded every bit as much weight as are the exact, the immaculate, and the precise." Less a work of scholarship than an enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels, and readers will love the ride.
As much as we value our contemporary high-tech conveniences, from cell phones to fuel-injected cars, few have ever considered a vitally important feature that keeps them all running smoothly, precision engineering. With his customary flair for transforming arcane subjects into engaging prose, Winchester (Pacific, 2015) recounts the achievements of several little-known inventors who revolutionized global industry and effectively made all of our modern gadgets possible with their finely crafted machinery. Although Winchester begins by giving due credit to the clockmakers who kept the British railways on schedule,in his view the first pioneer of precision-tooled instruments was eighteenth-century English industrialist John “Iron-Mad“ Winchester, who constructed the painstakingly accurate boring machines that produced cast-iron cylinders for steam engines. Other innovators profiled include Joseph Bramah (the hydraulic press), Jesse Ramsden (refracting telescopes), and Joseph Whitworth (precision machine tools). While Winchester underscores the importance these men’s contributions have ultimately made to today’s world of endlessly reproducible goods, he also contemplates whether in all this sameness and precision there isn’t still room for less accurate but no less valuable craftsmanship. Another gem from one of the world’s justly celebrated historians specializing in unusual and always fascinating subjects and people.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Another reader-pleaser from perennially best-selling Winchester.
— Carl Hays
The New York Times
Under Modernity’s Hood: Precision Engineering
The word “perfectionist" can conjure up the image of a fussy, slightly anxious person who needs to relax 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 19th 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 two-cylinder 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 gasoline-and-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 1/50th the width of a single human hair.
The Christian Science Monitor
'The Perfectionists' manages to make precision engineering fascinating
Simon Winchester writes about the raw engineering and precision manufacturing that makes the dreams of scientists possible.
“The emphasis in 'bestseller',” bestselling author James Michener used to say, “properly falls on 'best.'”
It was a quiet bit of boasting from a mild-mannered man who'd managed to make a New York Times bestseller out of an almost-700-page historical novel about Poland, but it's worth remembering when readers consider the latest book from another bestselling author, Simon Winchester. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World is in large part a protracted study of ball bearings, chrome-plated telescope components, mass-produced crankshafts, and whatever the heck the the Hadron Collider is. This is recidivist behavior for Winchester, who regularly chooses for his books subjects that aren't exactly general knowledge and then makes bestsellers out of those books in exactly the Michener way: by making everything he writes fascinating.
When it comes to "The Perfectionists," then, perhaps the more apropos Michener quote is: “Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.” Winchester's new book is about the raw engineering and precision manufacturing that makes the dreams of scientists possible.
Winchester is a champion humanizer; it's the foremost of his many writing skills. He sifts through the historical record, builds impressive bibliographies, and then crafts it all into three-dimensional characters. Readers will remember this, for instance, from his beloved hit book "The Professor and the Madman," and it's on full display in "The Perfectionists."
The book starts, ironically with a man who did his work before the age of precision engineering. The first in Winchester's gallery of heroes is the redoubtable 18th-century English clockmaker Johh Harrison, who labored for years on instruments that could be used on ships at sea in order to determine longitude, a problem that had long eluded both curious specialists and greedy shipping magnates. Harrison's clocks solved the problem (a story famously told in Dava Sobel's 1998 blockbuster "Longitude"), as Winchester recounts with a very winning sense of awe: “It remains a mystery just how, without the use of precision machine tools.… Harrison was able to accomplish all this,” he writes. “The notion that such work could possibly be done by the hand of a sixty-year-old John Harrison still beggars belief.”
In Harrison's wake came all the precision engineers who would increasingly use machines to construct every more precise machines. A great many of those engineers will be unknown to readers – figures like hydraulic engineer Joseph Bramah or British mathematician Jesse Ramsden, whose astronomical instruments were famed for their exacting accuracy. Other names in the roster are more familiar, although often here presented in new lights. The story of famous auto-maker Henry Ford, for instance, takes on new dimensions when told alongside that of Henry Royce, one of the founders of the iconic Rolls-Royce manufacturers.
“Had there been more justice in the world,” Winchester puckishly points out, “the company would have been named Royce-Rolls, as Henry Royce was the man who made the cars, while Charles Rolls simply (and flamboyantly) sold them.”
Winchester carefully and entertainingly furthers his story from mechanics to precision to hyper-precision of the kind that, for example, led to the great line of Leica lenses prized by photographers for decades. “There are certain ineradicable truths in the world of optical hyperprecision,” he writes, “and one of them, by near-universal agreement, is that the best Leica lenses are and long have been of unsurpassed quality, and deservedly represent the cynosure of the optical arts.”
The story Winchester tells is one of steady, almost inexorably increasing complexity, and this can make the book's later sections heavier going for the lay reader. “The mechanical polishing and grinding,” of complex lenses, those readers are told, “is performed to one-quarter lambda, or one-quarter of the wavelength of light, with lens surfaces machined to tolerances of 500 nanometers, or 0.0005 mm.”
It's a testament to Winchester's narrative skill, honed over two dozen books, that he makes even the most arcane of technical specifics smoothly comprehensible in context – no mean feat when he's dealing with something like extreme ultraviolet radiation (EUV), which has “a specific wavelength of 13.5 billionths of a meter” and is best produced “by firing a conventional high-powered laser at a suitable metal.”
"The Perfectionists" is at heart an account of the unsung heroes of our modern world. Our skies are criss-crossed by satellites; our horizons are dotted with cell-towers; our hospitals are stocked with portable miracle-machines; we carry in our pockets phones with greater computing complexity than the vast banks of data processors that put humans on the moon only half a century ago. All of these things were made possible by the reclusive, obsessive perfectionists who get their just praise in these pages.