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How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
By Simon Winchester
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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.
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.
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