The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World
Author: Simon Winchester
Publisher: Harper, history
“My father was for all his working life a precision engineer,” British author and journalist Simon Winchester writes in The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World.
In his childhood, his father would show him around his workplace. He also describes his first encounter with gauge blocks: non-magnetic metal tiles “used for measuring things to the most extreme of tolerances” with ultraflat sides that would bond when placed on top of each other.
These memories were triggered by an e-mail from one Colin Povey from Florida in the United States, who managed to persuade Winchester to write a book about the history of precision and had a personal reason for it. So now we know who, apart from the author, to thank for The Perfectionists.
Besides a brief history of precision engineering through selected milestones in the field, the book also has ruminations on the nature and importance of precision and what we stand to gain and lose in the quest for ever more precise measurements.
The author also argues that the word “precision” is a much better word than “accuracy”. “‘Accurate Laser Tattoo Removal’ sounds not nearly as convincing or effective … And it surely would be both damning and condescending to say that you tie your tie accurately – to knot it precisely is much more suggestive of elan and style.” As expected, perhaps, of someone who has written two books about the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity And The Making Of The Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998 and reissued in 2005; and The Meaning Of Everything: The Story Of The Oxford English Dictionary, 2003).
Each chapter in The Perfectionists is a part of a timeline in the history of precision engineering, from the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism (an ancient Greek analogue computer) to advances that would usher in the digital age. Some chapters feature vignettes from the author’s life and his research for the book, which suggests the project is more than just a scholarly pursuit.
The narrative begins with how British inventor Joseph Wilkinson fixed problems with leaking steam in the early builds of Scotsman James Watts’s steam engines. Wilkinson pioneered a method to make cannon out of solid cylinders of iron, and he applied this method to the engines.
We are also told of the lives and accomplishments of Winchester’s gallery of “perfectionists”, including English clockmaker John Harrison, whose marine chronometers revolutionised navigation and made long-distance sailing much safer; Swiss inventor Carl Edvard Johansson, creator of the gauge blocks that once fascinated the author; Kintaro Hattori, founder of Seiko, which released the world’s first quartz watch; and Frenchman Honore Blanc, who mooted the concept of interchangeable parts for guns. Curious how some of these early engineers cut their teeth in the firearms industry.
All in all, this book is a solid piece of literary engineering comprising intricately fitted components, tempered with academic rigour. The hefty and deeply intellectual material, however, demands the reader’s full attention, which is challenged by the staid, schoolmasterly prose and verbosity.
Even the trivia and the occasional display of that trademark British wit, mostly in the footnotes, don’t help much. A titbit: Apparently, a genetic descendant of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree is growing somewhere near a lab in Beijing.
Things get more interesting around the third chapter, as the author warms up even more to his subject – that is, if one hasn’t quit the book before then. Which would be tragic, given how much effort went into it.
To a degree, Winchester has achieved his (or maybe Colin Povey’s) aims with this book. Some questions arise: how far should the quest for precision go? Is there a breaking point? Might the frenetic pace of contemporary life, shaped in part by precision engineering, have moulded us into perfectionists as well? Is a “perfect” world a good idea?
With regards to the last, probably not.
As measurements become more precise, the margin of tolerable error shrinks, raising the risk of human involvement in engineering. According to Winchester, an error measuring 1/50th the thickness of a human hair caused the Hubble space telescope to capture fuzzy, unusable images (a Nasa optical engineer found a way to repair it after a eureka moment in the shower). We also hear of aeroplane crashes caused by human error.
Perhaps that’s why people don’t think about precision, except when baking. Nor should the non-engineering majority be obsessed with “the need for endlessly improving exactitude”.
So Winchester looks to Japan for a “third way”. Among the aspects of Japanese culture he explores is wabi-sabi, which he describes as “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”. One gathers that the Japanese worldview regarding transience and imperfection asserts that everything, no matter how precise or flawless, won’t stay that way forever.
Even these “perfectionists” weren’t perfect. For one, who knew that Eli Whitney of the cotton gin fame had scammed the US government by pretending he could produce muskets from interchangeable parts?
Regardless of what one takes away from this book, at least we now have a measure of how high these innovators towered, how fascinating their disciplines can be, and how epoch-making their creations were.