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The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Written by Simon Winchester

Narrated by Simon Winchester


The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Written by Simon Winchester

Narrated by Simon Winchester

ratings:
4.5/5 (51 ratings)
Length:
11 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 8, 2018
ISBN:
9780062848093
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

Description

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?

Publisher:
Released:
May 8, 2018
ISBN:
9780062848093
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

About the author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.


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What people think about The Perfectionists

4.6
51 ratings / 10 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (3/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    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).
  • (4/5)
    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!
  • (5/5)
    Another great book I had the chance to read almost in a row ! This reminds me how engineers were so creative in this modern and furious world - Actually kind of DaVinci pionniers undoubtly ;() Particularly love Simon Winchester's storytelling science as well ... May - 2018
  • (5/5)
    Excellent material with perfect naration. Definitely for the science minded.
  • (5/5)
    Who knew that the history of precision could be enthralling, suspenseful, and filled with stranger-than-fiction characters?
    The author's words, sentences, rhythm, and story arc stand like fine architecture and dance like Nureyev. The voice of the author reading his work is a benchmark for audiobook quality.
  • (5/5)
    Once again another vocabulary rich, story rich Winchester excursion into another facet of our rationale world with irrational human beings pacing the way. As a scientist I have used bowed to the gods of accuracy and precision but I had no idea of their history and their applications to the world I walk through. If you are a Winchester fan this is yet another enjoyable marker for your shelf.
  • (5/5)
    Engineers are probably some of the least appreciated people in the UK and yet if you think about it everything is dependent on them. If there were no engineers you would not have items like your phone, your car, bicycles, kitchen gadgets, computers, electricity and even the very infrastructure that means that you can live life in the modern way. Things are much better built now too, compared to even twenty years ago, that extra precision we have got makes for better quality products. But, what is the difference is between accuracy and precision? And how is that making a difference in our modern world.

    Beginning with the machines that started the industrial revolution off, steam engines and the rapid improvements that were made in the tolerance and efficiency of them, to the world's first unpickable lock, and the precision engineering from horologists that made clocks and timepieces more accurate, and people much later than ever before. All of these incremental advances made the things that people were buying a better each time and coupled with new inventions by the likes of  John `Iron-Mad' Wilkinson and Joseph Whitworth made making things so much easier and made repeatable manufacture possible.

    His stories of the way that engineers have made the modern world moves from the open road, where we learn how the Ford Model T was more precisely made than a Rolls-Royce. Each Rolls-Royce was handcrafted and when the men assembling it came across the odd part that didn't fit they would file and adjust to ensure that it did. Ford did not have the luxury of time to make things fit, each part had to fit, first time, every time. Cars are easy though, compared to aeroplanes, just to get several hundred tonnes of plane, passengers and luggage and off the ground requires another level of engineering expertise. Form the earliest planes that were held together with rivets, modern aircraft are glued together and the jet engines that can lift the great weights into the sky are some of the most powerful machines ever made. The finest engineers have developed turbine blades that can operate in an environment that is actually hotter than the melting temperature of the single crystal titanium alloy that they are made from. Each blade produces more power that an F1 car and they are spinning at around 10,000 rpm. They are reliable too, only very rarely does one of these engines fail, and he describes a flight that had to undertake an emergency landing when one component that was a fraction of a millimetre out self-destructed.

    Silicone is immensely important to the modern world. Not only has it been used to fill the gaps in the wall so we can see through them, but its use in lenses have opened up miniature worlds and the wonders of the solar system to us. You are probably carrying around a lot of silicone too; its use in electronics has revolutionised the modern world and the machines that are used to make these ubiquitous microchips that are found in almost everything from coffee machines to watches that can tell you exactly where you are on the planet. These work from the GPS system, a technology that relies on the accurate time as measured using caesium clocks. It is time too that defines our most common measurements like the metre and the kilogramme and rendering the finely made platinum standard items a relic of the museum.

    I may have a slight bias in reading and reviewing this as I am an engineer who is qualified in both electronics and mechanical engineering and I have designed things as varied as defence equipment to lighting to speaker cables. I thought that this was a really well-written book about the engineers that have made modern society what it is nowadays. It is well researched and full of interesting and anecdotal tales such as how we can now measure light years to within the width of a human hair that add so much to the story of precision over the years.  I liked the way at the beginning of each chapter the tolerance increases for each change in technology and the precision required to achieve the next level up. Excellent book and can highly recommend.
  • (3/5)
    I've a rule that if I find two errors, besides obvious typos, in a book, I discount it. Unfortunately such is the case with The Perfectionists. Water is not known for becoming unstable, at 4°C or other temperatures found easily on earth. It is the most dense. There are others. This is the sole reason the book does not have five stars, it is fascinating, unfortunately I am not comfortable with its accuracy.