How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
“Another gem from one of the world’s justly celebrated historians specializing in unusual and always fascinating subjects and people.” — Booklist (starred review)
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?
Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) smoothly mixes history, science, and biographical sketches to pay homage to the work of precision engineers, whom he credits with the creation of everything from unpickable locks to gravity wave detectors and the Hubble Telescope. He credits the start of modern precision engineering to "iron-mad" John Wilkinson, an eccentric 18th-century English engineer whose method for casting and boring iron cannons led to the manufacture of smooth-running pistons and cylinders that were then used in the steam engines of James Watt. The son of a precision engineer, Winchester clearly delights in the topic, relating his stories with verve, enthusiasm, and wit. Henry Royce and the Rolls-Royce automobiles he designed contrast with Henry Ford's inexpensive, "reliably unreliable" bare-bones assembly line cars. The author paints historic characters vividly, including engineer Joseph Whitworth, described as "large and bearded and oyster-eyed"; cabinet-maker Joseph Bramah, who patented the flush toilet; tech aficionado Prince Albert; and rapacious businessman Eli Whitney, who lied about using Frenchman Honor Blanc's idea for standardized parts for flintlocks in his winning bid for a U.S. government contract for 10,000 muskets. Winchester's latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs. (May)