The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World, by Simon Winchester
I must admit that when I started reading this book I was not very familiar with what the author meant about precision engineering. To be sure, it is easy enough to understand the difference between precision–where everything is made exactly the same or where a group of shots has very little variance between them, and accuracy, which is hitting the target aimed at, even if one only does it occasionally. And when the author is writing well, as is the case here, nearly any subject can be made rather entertaining and instructive, and so this book ended up being a very good one even if I was not as familiar with its content as I am with most of the books I read. The book dealt a lot more with questions of manufacturing and design that I was used to, but it was a good thing, I think, to take a look at a sort of work that I did not usually read and find that it met my expectations and allowed me to ponder questions about design and where information is located that are worthy of being thought of in more detail.
This sizable work of about 350 pages is divided into ten chapters and various other material. The author begins with a prologue that discusses his own familiarity with precision engineering (thanks to his father as well as his travels) and his own desire to be precise with words. After this comes a discussion of the origins of precision engineering in finely crafted works of antiquity as well as the longitude clock (1), and how precision engineering got its start in cylinders for cannon manufacture as well as steam engines. The author then moves to the way that the design of precision equipment from the beginning had a negative effect on the standard of living of skilled craftsmen (2), and that it quickly served the interests of mass producing weapons and clocks for the common people (3). Later chapters discuss the way these machines sought to make a more perfect world (4), provided both mass and elite automobiles (5), were vital in the creation of safe airliners (6), and were vital in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope (7). The author also spends time talking about favorite issues like the disputes over standards and measures (8), the possible limits of chip design (9), and the way that there are many people who prefer what is well-crafted even if it is less precise or efficient in its construction (10). The author then closes with a discussion of how we should measure our world, along with acknowledgements, a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index.
In reading this book, one senses a great tension within the writer, and it is easy for a reader to feel a great deal of ambivalence about the subject of precision engineering as well. There are two ways to precision, one of them through developing extremely skilled artisans who build in low units that which is expensive and designed for elite audiences, and the other through putting the skill in the machines and having unskilled workers (as well as machines) construct large amounts of very inexpensive but reliable goods designed for the masses. Some advances in precision have long appeared to threaten the well-being of ordinary people in terms of their income and job variety and skill while simultaneously providing inexpensive items for people to purchase. Additionally, there appear to be certain limits to precision in many aspects, and there are always questions about the purpose of precision and the overall aims that it serves. One can tell in reading this book that Winchester wants to celebrate quality, encourage the well-being of the commonfolk, and also be a booster for popular science, and finds it difficult to do all of it simultaneously.