Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created

“The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World,” by Simon Winchester, Harper-Collins, 2018. This 395-page hardback tells the story of high precision and interchangeable parts in the development of the modern economy. Winchester is a well known journalist, but the word polymath appears repeatedly. He is into detailed reporting on a variety of technical subjects.

The story begins with James Watt’s steam engine. It would not have been possible without the skill of John Wilkerson in manufacturing cast iron cannons (thirty-two pound long guns) for the Royal Navy. He learned that cannons are best make from casting a solid block of iron and then boring a chamber with a rotating cutting tool. Attempts to use inserts in the casting often resulted in defects that caused the cannon to explode when fired. Watt’s steam engine required a smooth bore cylinder up to fifty inches in diameter. In 1776, Wilkerson’s method provided a cylinder with clearance of less than 0.1 inches, which Watt could fill with grease.

Another example of perfectionism is John Harrison’s sea clock used to determine longitude. He spent years perfecting his clocks for a prize of twenty thousand pounds. The first became available in 1735.

Joseph Bramah in London invented the cylinder lock in 1784. He challenged others to pick his lock. For 60 years they were unsuccessful. His lock relied on precision machining. Henry Maudslay developed machine tools to make them cheaply. Next came wooden pulley blocks for the navy’s sailing ships. He also invented a practical micrometer and a screw cutting machine.

Manufacturing with precision-made interchangeable parts started with muskets in France. Honore Blanc demonstrated the concept in a trial in 1785. The method was opposed by gunsmiths who worried it would put them out of business. Although successful, the French Revolution interrupted progress. Fortunately Thomas Jefferson was there to bring the idea to the US. In 1798, Eli Whitney of cotton gin fame, got the government contract to make muskets with interchangeable parts. After considerable effort (and delay) he failed and is often regarded as a charlatan. Simeon North in Middletown, CT made one of the first metal milling machines. At the Harper’s Ferry (VA) Armory, John Hall improved on the metal milling machine. In 1817, Thomas Blanchard in Springfield, MA created a lathe to make shoe lasts. It was adapted to make wooden gun stocks at the Springfield Armory. Connecticut became well known for the manufacture of guns and gun parts. The same methods were adapted to make wooden clocks.

Joseph Whitworth is next. During the era of London’s Great Exposition, Whitworth developed standardized screw making machines. He also invented the micrometer that could measure one millionth of an inch.

Next is the story of the automobile. Henry Royce began what became Rolls-Royce in 1903. He purchased a French Decauville auto and soon set out to improve it. He sought perfection in every aspect. The Silver Ghost arrived in 1906. He partnered with Charles Rolls, a salesman, to create the company. Next Henry Ford insisted on precision manufacturing to allow assembly line production. His goal was a low cost automobile the average man could afford. His Model T arrived in 1908. A Swede, Carl Edvard Johansson invented a precision measuring system known as Jo Blocks. Ford bought the company and moved it to Detroit.

Frank Whittle invented the jet engine patented in 1931. After extensive research, the first flight was in 1941. In a jet engine, turbine blades are exposed to high temperatures. They are cooled by pumping air through hundreds of tiny holes. The Boeing 707 passenger jet arrived in 1958. Pratt and Whitney and Rolls-Royce were early jet engine makers, but strangely General Electric is not mentioned.

A chapter describes the Hubble telescope and its focus problem corrected by Astronauts from the Shuttle. Winchester briefly describes early photography and the development of lenses. GPS technology follows. Then the transistor and the integrated circuit. A final chapter tells the story of Seiko in Japan. They invented the quartz watch in the 1960s and mass produce them with highly automated equipment. They continue to make the mechanical Grand Seiko, a treasure, by hand using skilled watchmakers. (Prices to $250K.)

Standards for various measures are described. The meter, the liter, and the kilogram of the metric system have standards stored in the Archives Nationales de France in Paris. Measuring physical standards always introduces error at some level. More recent efforts have sought to use the wave length of spectral lines from selected materials. An experiment with the yellow sodium D line was unsuccessful. The cadmium red line is used to define the Angstrom, one ten-billionth of a meter. The reddish orange line of krypton-86 is now the standard for the meter. The atomic clock has become the time standard. It uses cesium-133. There are 320 atomic clocks which are checked against each other every 12 minutes to eliminate nanosecond errors.

This book contains an abundance of information on the need for precision. Glossary, Bibliography, Index, Photos.