Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester

Precision is the key …

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The book starts with Mr Winchester’s description of the gauge blocks his father brought home, and then takes us through the history of precision engineering. I revisited the history of John Harrison’s invention of the chronometer, James Watt’s invention of the steam engine, learned about John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson’s skills and was reminded that precision engineering has replaced some skilled work as many machines can be operated by unskilled workers.

Mr Winchester makes a case for the birth of precision engineering in the 19th century. Steam engines, cars, other manufactured mechanisms. Mass production replacing skilled craftsman. But with greater precision comes risk: the slight misalignment of a tiny tube in a jet engine almost resulted in a fatal catastrophe (November 2010), and incorrect grinding of the main mirror of the Hubble telescope required a servicing mission in 1993. The more precise the engineering, the less permissible the variation that can be accepted. Where will it end? I admire the skills and the increasingly precise measurements but wonder how far we need (as distinct from want) to pursue precision. Just how much further can we go in the Silicon Age?

And, amongst the stories of technological advances, I was delighted to read about handmade Seiko watches.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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