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The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers…

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

by Simon Winchester (Author)

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Title:The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
Authors:Simon Winchester (Author)
Info:Harper (2018), Edition: First Edition, 416 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester (Author & Narrator) (2018)



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Precision Engineering makes up much of the modern world. With machines perfectly manufactured to create more machined pieces, we live in a world that relies on the quality of these pieces. The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester discusses this rarely-mentioned idea. We all talk about the Assembly Line, for instance, perfected by Henry Ford in order to make cars cheap enough for all to afford. We fail to understand the implications of that though, that there has to be a set standard for every piece even down to the tiniest screw or else the Assembly Line will grind to a halt.

Initially, pieces were machined by hand, people could get tired and imperfections would get through. So it really started out with the production of locks and moved on to weapons.

Now this book does mention a great many things that I did not know. For instance, I remember hearing about Eli Whitney when I was a child. He invented the Cotton Gin. I did not know that he was a massive charlatan along with that. He led the US Government by the nose, making them believe he had mastered a new French method of mass-producing rifles. All in all, he scammed his backers out of several thousand dollars. Even further is the idea of the Gauge Block. I don’t really know how they are machined, but they are blocks that allow one to go and make something level. They are made so that they are perfectly flat, giving it some fascinating properties. For example, if you place them on top of one another, you won’t be able to pull them apart. You will need to slide them apart instead.

As I mentioned, precision is everywhere. Some of this is stuff that people totally rely on. Take the idea of the Jet Engine. The Jet Engine is made up of one moving part, the spinning rotor in the center of the machine. With the rotation achieved in such a device, it is necessary to make it out of a single piece of metal with the lost-wax method. It is really interesting to read and discuss. Even more interesting are the little tiny advancements made to the processes and to the techniques. There are many unsung heroes in this subject. Take the Hubble Space Telescope for example. When it was launched, it was discovered to have a massive flaw in one of the mirrors or lenses. So some person devised a method of fixing it while in the shower. I believe he looked at the shower head and figured out a method. This was preferable to having a space-suited astronaut float in and mess with the instruments.

Nowadays I assume that precision is easier to achieve with the advent of the laser and so on, but it is no less essential. Even now with computers and vehicles, everything is manufactured with precision. Could you imagine having a computer component that doesn’t fit your computer? It would be like if Dell had some standard that was different from HP or Acer or any other computer company. It would be ridiculous.

This book was really interesting, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of precision. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
I had only read the first 3 pages when I was struck by a sense of deja vu. The author's father had given him some precision engineered gauge blocks which were impossible for him to separate by pulling them apart. They had to be slid apart. It took me back instantly to my 2nd and 3rd year of high school when we worked with such blocks and attempted to achieve some degree of precision using gauge blocks and hand files and a greasy blue marking ink to show where the high spots were. I immediately contacted one of my old classmates to recommend the book to him but found he had beaten me to it. Both of us had been affected and fascinated by the contact with precision in those early years. Winchester has pretty much written a history of gian leaps in precision. His chapters are organised in ascending order of tolerance...with low tolerance of 0.1 and 0.01 of an inch starting the story and rising to tolerances of 10 to the -28th grams.
There is a brief discussion of the Antikythera mechanism, apparently produced in second century BC with gear tolerances of a few tenths of a mm. But, according to modern analysts it was uselessly inaccurate in delivering what it was supposed to.A remarkable creation but not a miracle of perfection).
He then moves on to the sad story of John Harrison who produced remarkable clocks of incredible precision which the Royal Navy was most reluctant to recognise and to pay him for. The next character we meet is John Wikinson who came up with the idea of boring cannon from a solid cast cylinder of iron. He then combined with James Watt and bored steam cylinders with a tolerance of 0.1 of an ice in a 50 inch diameter cylinder. And, as Winchester points out ..this was done with a machine ...a machine doing the boring. and it could be reproduced. Chapter 2 takes us to a tolerance of 0.0001and describes the role of henry Maudslay in developing a set of machine tools to build locks......including massive improvements in lathes. He also built machines to build the thousands of pulley blocks demanded by the Royal Navy. These machines were still working 150 years later. But there was also the consequence that 100 skilled workers were thrown out of work. Maudslay also came up with the concept of flatness and the notion that to grind one surface flat you need to grind three at once and produced a bench micrometer accurate to one ten thousandth of an inch.
The story then moves to the use where guns were produced with milling machines in making interchangeable standardised parts to tolerances of one fiftieth of a mm. Then comes Whitworth who built on the work of Maudslay and built a micrometer that could measure to 1/1,000,000 of an inch. (Actually I find that the constant jumping around between inches and mm is a bit distracting). It was Whitworthwho also championed the standardisation of threads which eventually became the BSW system.. a crucial standard in engineering workshops around then world.
There is a bit of a diversion into the making of the Rolls Royce car and the model T Ford ...the principle conclusion being the precision engineering was a major reason for the success of both but it was with the standardisation of precision engineered parts by Ford that represented the most important development. It allowed mass production techniques. In 1896, A Swede, Carl Johansson developed the first set of gauge blocks: 103 of them which could be used together to take some 20,000 measurements in increments of 0.001 mm. They came to USA in 1908 and eventually the whole business was bought up by Ford.
Chapter 6 is devoted to the development of the jet engine ...most credit going to Frank Whittle (although a German Hans von Chain had actually designed an earlier version that flew as the Heinkel He 178). There is a lengthy discussion of the failure of a part in a Rolls Royce aircraft engine but there is no real mention in this chapter of the tolerances required for these new engines...except that the Chapter is ostensibly about a precision level of 0.000 000 000 001. I'm reminded at this time that I was shown some precision measuring equipment in about 1973 that used wavelengths of light and by placing a hand on the delicate glass surface one could distort it by something like this extraordinary level of precision). Similarly,I observed a documentary in Japan where ball was being engineered to run along a steel track. Both track and ball were honed to unbelievable levels of accuracy....plus a special release mechanism. the ball eventually did run true for a long way on this flat steel track before rolling off the side.
Chapter 7 is nominally about the optics of the Leica camera with lenses machined to tolerances of 0.0005mm (though still a long way from the 0.000 000 000 000 1 proclaimed at the chapter heading) but then goes on to talk about grinding the Hubble Space telescope mirror ......no part to deviate by more than one millionth of an inch..(There's that switch again from mm to inches). Unfortunately There was an error made with a measuring device and the mirror was put into orbit flawed. Later, a corrective optics part was replaced ..to an accuracy of at least one-millionth of a meter. (Again this annoying miss mash of measurements ,,,now meters not mm). Chapter 8 is devoted to GPS location that can now be made for a ship in the middle of the ocean to within cm. But it's basically about clocks timing the signals to multiple satellites. Chapter 9 is basically about the development of electronics and the thriving of the transistor. In 1947 the first transistor was the size of a small child's hand, But by the time of writing the book in 2016 node size was down to fourteen billionths of a meter ....the size of viruses. But we are starting to come up against some physical barriers with transistors that are only a couple of hundred atoms thick. Now we are starting to get close to the Planck length of 10 to -38 places. where the idea of physical size becomes meaningless. But with the LIGo instrument (an interferometer) gravitational waves were inferred in Sept 2015. And the test masses on the LIOG are so accurate that the light reflected by them can be measured to one ten-thousandth of the diameter of a proton. (Another change of units!!). Chapter 10 is kind of a philosophical afterthought about precision and exemplified by the Seiko watch company that produces quartz watches that keep better time but is also producing (vey slowly but keeping the craft alive) hand made watches ..of impeccable but lesser precision. He muses about the contradictions between the japanese obsession with precision and being on time with the concept of wabi sabi....the beauty of something not quite regular. (I met a ceramics maker in Japan...a near Living Treasure who literally drops his hagi ware on the floor before firing so imperfections are guaranteed...have one of his vases at home with a piece blown off in the firing process because of the presence of quartz in the clay....all considered to add to the charm of the piece). Then Winchester...as an "afterword" adds in a chapter about standards such as the standard kilogram and the standard of time that has long since moved from relaying on the length of the solar day to the fine tuned caesium clock measured to a known precision of 10 to the power of -28. This means it would neither gain nor lose a second in 138 million years. (Seems reasonable!). A fascinating book.. might have been easier to follow if he had standardised units...(though difficult where he was quoting from some other work). He promises more than he actually delivers. Nice little personal digressions into incidents like placing a drilling rig in the ocean and the history of Rolls Royce but not really a connection to the level of precision being used at Rolls Royce or for it's historical significance. The chapter headings promise a discussion of a certain level of precision such as 0.000 000 0001 but the units aren't stated ..are they inches? mm? cubits? and often the chapter doesn't mention a degree of precision....the whole section about the development of the jet engine doesn't mention a degree of precision. And there is really no discussion about the precision needed to deliver things like the ring top pulls on beer cans or the screw tops on plastic soft drink bottles. (I guess one can't cover everything). ( )
  booktsunami | Mar 25, 2019 |
The Perfectionists is just....perfect. It is another wonderful read from Simon Winchester and I continue to be amazed by the depth, focus, and appeal that he puts into any subject he writes about. If you have ever read any of Winchester's other books you are familiar with the way that he can weave a compelling narrative around pretty much any topic. In this case it is around precision engineering - the work taken that allowed for mass production and was critical to creating the world we live in today. It is the story not only about the science of metrology and precision engineering, but also the people involved with bring about these changes and who made precision happen.

There are a few things that I really liked about this book. Winchester's organization of the chapters, starting with the least precise and continuing up to the most precise, and describing the inventions and innovations that were developed to bring about that level of precision, was well-thought out and emphasized, for me, how the nature of precision engineering has changed and developed. I was also impressed with the examples that Winchester selected to tell his story, from the mass production of blocks (for block and tackle), automobiles, muskets and rifles, and watches, to the creation of space telescopes and a whole lot in between. Everything discussed sparked my interest and I learned a lot of new information about the world we now take for granted.

I "read" the audiobook version which was narrated by Winchester himself, and there is a special feeling you get when you can hear the author tell their own story. I enjoyed his narration and it felt more like a series of chats held over drinks rather than a book being read.

I highly recommend The Perfectionists (along with all of Winchester's other books). It is a great study on history, science, and the people who made the technological advances to our world, and who continue to stretch the boundaries of what engineering can accomplish. ( )
  GeoffHabiger | Mar 6, 2019 |
Winchester's forensic analysis of the Hubble mistake, and its repair, as well as the Challenger disaster were too precise for the general reader. The narrative was better, otherwise engaging. His introduction, where he clarifies the definitions of precision and accuracy assured my complete read. "Books are a lot like NYC, five minutes in either may be enough" -- Bob Johnson, 1965. ( )
  applemcg | Feb 11, 2019 |
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 |
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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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