Prolific and bestselling writer Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World) returns with The Perfectionists, turning his focus to precision engineering—in a nutshell, the story of machines that make other machines. Without precision engineering, we’d have had no Industrial Revolution, no steam engines, no cars, jet airplanes, GPS or the ever-more-miniscule silicon chips inside our phones, laptops and countless other devices.
As with some of Winchester’s previous books, The Perfectionists combines social history and science. Each chapter opens with a short bit of memoir, such as an incident from Winchester’s 20s when he was a geologist on a North Sea oil rig, or a compelling anecdote, like a horrifying engine failure on a super-jumbo jet, to illustrate a larger point. Along the way, Winchester incorporates profiles of innovators both familiar and unknown, among them Thomas Jefferson, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, and Gordon Moore, the Intel founder who in 1965 predicted that computer components would shrink by half every year, a prediction now known as Moore’s Law. The book’s complicated scientific explanations have the potential to be tedious (at least to nonengineers like me), but Winchester’s prose is engaging, describing concepts like the role of precision time-keeping in the development of GPS, and the mind-boggling set of factors that allow a jet engine to power an enormous airplane without the engine overheating and melting.
A late chapter gets a little philosophical, weighing the gains and losses that precision has brought us as Winchester delves into the history of the Seiko Watch Company in Japan, where craft and precision work side by side. But what remains with me are the stories from Winchester’s life, as well as those of the men (yes, almost all men) who measured, tinkered and persevered to build, for better or worse, our ultraprecision-driven world.