How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World


Winchester, a New York Times best-selling author, describes the essential contribution of precision to the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age.  It all began with the originators in nineteenth century England.  Their discoveries were exported to the fledgling United States by Thomas Jefferson, setting the nation on the path of industrialization.  

Precision tools and methods were essential to the development of many elements of modern life, such as guns, glass, mirrors, lenses, cameras, and ultimately to gene splicing, microchips and the Hadron Collider.

The fundamental questions posed 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 blinded us to other things of value, such as an appreciation of craftsmanship, art and high culture?  As we learn of the evolution of the technology, we will also consider these important questions facing our modern, technology-driven society.

Weekly Topics

1.    Stars, Seconds, Cylinders & Steam - Early clocks used in ship navigation and railroad timetables.  James Watt's steam engine, made practical by application of the skills of John Wilkinson in boring cannon barrels.

2.    Extremely Flat & Incredibly Close - Development of the unpickable lock and the machine tools required to mass produce it.  Mass production of pulley blocks, desperately needed by the Royal Navy, and the resulting social cost in lost jobs.

3.    A Gun in Every House, A Clock in Every Cabin - Fraud perpetrated by Eli Whitney in his attempt to mass produce guns made of interchangeable parts.  Machine-made guns and clocks, less expensive and available to almost everyone.

4.    On the Verge of a More Perfect World - The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London to celebrate the achievements of the Industrial Revolution.

5.    The Invisible Lure of the Highway - Rolls Royce, founded to make the best cars -- by hand without regard to cost -- based on mechanical perfection to the most unforgiving tolerance (precision for the few).  Ford, founded to build the least costly cars for the many with all parts arriving precisely finished to exacting standards.

6.    Precision & Peril, Six Miles High - Precision required in development of a reliable aircraft jet engine.  Inauguration of the Jet Age.

7.    Through a Glass, Distinctly - Development of precision optics with application to telescopes, binoculars & microscopes, also cameras and bifocal lenses for spectacles.  Human error in development of the Hubble Space Telescope and its correction.

8.    Where Am I and What Is the Time? - Development of the GPS, as a clock-based system won over the Doppler-based system.

9.    Squeezing Beyond Boundaries - Exactitude of use only at the near-atomic level.  Swiss machines of 160 tons used to make electronic microprocessor chips.  Reaching the limits to Moore's Law?  LIGO observatories sensing the presence of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein.

10.    On the Necessity for Equipoise - Duality between the modern need for the perfect and a fondness for the imperfect by Japanese.  Mass production of the very accurate and inexpensive Seiko quartz watch.  Respect accorded to both precision and to its opposite; to machine and to craft.

11.   The Measure of All Things - Establishing internationally agreed standards of measurement.  Searching for inviolable standards.Seven foundational units of measurement, six of which are related to time, but what is time? 


Winchester, Simon; The Perfectionists; How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World; Harper Collins, 2018