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The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers…

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (2018)

by Simon Winchester

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The modern world is built on precision. Manufacturing techniques were developed that allowed interchangeable parts to be used in machines. Machine tools produced more consistent results than people working with hand tools. As computers became ever smaller and our knowledge of the scientific world deepened, precision became something of a Holy Grail—can those tolerances get even smaller? Simon Winchester explores how precision as a scientific concept came to become enshrined in our society and talks about its implications for the future. He ponders as well the conflict between precision and craftsmanship. Can we not find a place for both? Does everything have to be SO precise?

I really enjoyed this book. As usual, Winchester has done extensive research. And in this book he covers a broad variety of topics. My favourite chapter in this book was Chapter 6, which talks about the need for precision in the manufacture of jet engines and what happens when the precision is off by even a tiny bit. The example he gives of the in-flight uncontained engine failure in a Qantas jet over Batam Island, Indonesia, which naturally led me to the investigation report (I am a nerd and read accident investigation reports). There are also chapters on the Great Exhibition, building ever smaller computers, and the Hubble telescope, among others.

I’d recommend this if you’re interested in the history of science and technology. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Oct 20, 2018 |
Feels like a fascinating story and has a nice intro, but I got thoroughly bogged down after a few chapters.
  themulhern | Oct 2, 2018 |
another good read from Winchester.
Not all of his books are a success, but this one suits me.
Have a brother in law who I think will enjoy this as well

Big Ship

9 September 2018 ( )
  bigship | Sep 8, 2018 |
I have high hopes for this. Looking forward to learning all sorts of stuff I don't know. My experience with Simon Winchester is that he can explain things in a way I understand. Plus, it's a very handsome book. ( )
  ReadMeAnother | Jun 18, 2018 |
A series of stories about the use of precision, and how more precise measurements are needed for the modern world. Beginning with the introduction of the steam engine in the 18th century, Mr Winchester shows how increasing the power of measuring distance, area, volume and mechanical tolerance, we have arrived at modern times and can use GPS and send satellites through the rings of Saturn. More than a series of biographies, this book recounts the trials of learning how to measure devices, and the opposition and the reluctance to reach either standards or accepted standards. One chapter that intrigued me was about the differences between Henry Royce and Henry Ford. Both men started motor car companies, but Ford used inter-changeable parts to a degree unknown, while Royce used precision engineering on each vehicle. How their visions were different showed the desire for accuracy, as well as the desire for output. Both men changed the way the world looks at cars today.
Recommended for those with an interest in the history of science and engineering, engineering, mathematics, and industrial development. A good read, too! ( )
  hadden | Jun 15, 2018 |
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“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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These brief passages from works by the writer Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) might usefully be borne in mind while reading the pages that follow.

The cycle of the machine is now coming to an end. Man has learned much in the hard discipline and the shrewd, unflinching grasp of practical possibilities that the machine has provided in the last three centuries: but we can no more continue to live in the world of the machine than we could live successfully on the barren surface of the moon.


We must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent.


Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.

For Setsuko

And in loving memory of my father,

Bernard Austin William Winchester, 1921-2011,

a most meticulous man
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The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.

- Bertolt Brecht, LIFE OF GALILEO (1939)

We were just about to sit down to dinner when my father, a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, said that he had something to show me.

It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest assured with that degree of precision that the nature of the subject admits, and not to seek exactness when only an approximation of the truth is possible.

- Aristotle (384-322 BC), NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

The man who by the common consent of the engineering fraternity is regarded as the father of true precision was an eighteenth-century Englishman named John Wilkinson, who was denounced sardonically as lovably mad, and especially so because of his passion for and obsession with metallic iron.
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Published in North America as The perfectionists; published in the UK and the Commonwealth as Exactly.
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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." --Amazon.com."Precision is so essential a component of modern human life and existence that we seldom stop to think about it. [This book] examines the relatively recent development of the notion of precision--the people who developed it and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world--and the challenges posed and losses risked by our veneration and pursuit of increasingly precise tools and methods. The history of precision as a concept and in practice begins in England with its originators: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who first exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 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 in the development of guns, glass, mirrors, lenses, and cameras gave way to further advancements, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider. The fundamental questions at the heart of The Perfectionists are these: 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 ultraprecise 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 coexist in society?"--Dust jacket.… (more)

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