The Perfectionists


Simon Winchester




Date Reviewed:

September 13, 2019

he subtitle for this book is: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. This is great book for someone, like me, who is curious of how things work, and we developed the skills needed to created the modern marvels. Winchester is an accomplished author, capable of describing complicated subjects in an interesting and clear fashion. Winchester includes stories about the engineers and researchers who were driven to build these new machines. Plus, Winchester includes fascinating tidbits learned from his research, such as the discovery that a half-millimeter misalignment of drill that formed a tiny pipe in a jet engine resulted in an explosive engine failure that nearly an A380 jet with 450 people on board.

The book begins with the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine. James Watt had designed a marvelous machine useful for pumping water out of the mines of England, but the steam engine wasn't efficient enough - too much steam escaped from between the piston and the cylinder. Escaped steam meant a loss of power. Fortuitously, James Watt meets John Wilkinson, who has perfected a technique for drilling cannons from a solid chunk of iron. Drilling out the cannon results in a much stronger gun, the original approach of casting cannons from molds led to too many cannons that shattered when fired. Watt asks Wilkinson if he might modify his drilling machine to create the cyclinder for the steam engine. Wilkinson is successful, with his new technique, the piston fits inside the cylinder with a tolerance of just 0.1", which is plenty snug for the task at hand. Watt goes onto glory, and the idea of using a machine (the cannon drill) to build another machine (the steam engine) takes a giant leap forward.

Each chapter in The Perfectionists is full of interesting facts and historical stories. There is a chapter on how the idea of interchangeable gun parts came to American - instead of a gunsmith handcrafting a replacement part whenever a component broke on a gun, instead, with all guns were designed to the same specifications, which meant that a readily available replacement part could be quickly substituted with little effort. The chapter on interchangeable gun parts reveals surprising story that Eli Whitney, (forever famous for his invention of the cotton-gin), was actually a fraud when it came to the replacement part industry.

There is a chapter on the Grey Ghost, a legendary car designed to exacting tolerances by an obsessive Henry Royce. Everything part on the car was examined, and tested, and then rebuilt if it failed. The Grey Ghost was driven on long road trips around England, and when the trip was completed, the car was taken apart and examined for wear.

As the chapters unfold and the book advances forward through time, the machined tolerances get tighter and tighter. There is are stories about watchmakers and hydraulic presses, Leica cameras and their prized lenses. The turbines inside a jet engine. A chapter on Global Positioning Satellites. The billions of tiny transistors inside modern microprocessors. The Hubble Telescope, whose lens was famously out of alignment by just 1/50th the width of a single human hair.

Finally, Winchester describes the LIGO instrument (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) which is used to detect gravity waves. The tolerances on LIGO are incredible, a passing gravity wave will distort the mirrors by only 10-18 meters, yet so perfect is the design of the LIGO machine that it can detect that slight distortion. Eventually, humans will build machines molecule by molecule.

This book is quite interesting, well worth a read.