The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
By: Simon Winchester
Precision is so essential a component of modern human life and existence that we seldom stop to think about it. [This book] examines the relatively recent development of the notion of precision— the people who developed it and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world— and the challenges posed and losses risked by our veneration and pursuit of increasingly precise tools and methods. The history of precision as a concept and in practice begins in England with its originators: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who first exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 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 in the development of guns, glass, mirrors, lenses, and cameras gave way to further advancements, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider. The fundamental questions at the heart of The Perfectionists 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 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 coexist in society?