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'The Perfectionists' manages to make precision engineering fascinating

Simon Winchester writes about the raw engineering and precision manufacturing that makes the dreams of scientists possible.

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World By Simon Winchester HarperCollins Publishers 384 pp.
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“The emphasis in 'bestseller',” bestselling author James Michener used to say, “properly falls on 'best.'”

It was a quiet bit of boasting from a mild-mannered man who'd managed to make a New York Times bestseller out of an almost-700-page historical novel about Poland, but it's worth remembering when readers consider the latest book from another bestselling author, Simon Winchester. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World is in large part a protracted study of ball bearings, chrome-plated telescope components, mass-produced crankshafts, and whatever the heck the the Hadron Collider is. This is recidivist behavior for Winchester, who regularly chooses for his books subjects that aren't exactly general knowledge and then makes bestsellers out of those books in exactly the Michener way: by making everything he writes fascinating. 

When it comes to "The Perfectionists," then, perhaps the more apropos Michener quote is: “Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.” Winchester's new book is about the raw engineering and precision manufacturing that makes the dreams of scientists possible. 

Winchester is a champion humanizer; it's the foremost of his many writing skills. He sifts through the historical record, builds impressive bibliographies, and then crafts it all into three-dimensional characters. Readers will remember this, for instance, from his beloved hit book "The Professor and the Madman," and it's on full display in "The Perfectionists."

The book starts, ironically with a man who did his work before the age of precision engineering. The first in Winchester's gallery of heroes is the redoubtable 18th-century English clockmaker Johh Harrison, who labored for years on instruments that could be used on ships at sea in order to determine longitude, a problem that had long eluded both curious specialists and greedy shipping magnates. Harrison's clocks solved the problem (a story famously told in Dava Sobel's 1998 blockbuster "Longitude"), as Winchester recounts with a very winning sense of awe: “It remains a mystery just how, without the use of precision machine tools.… Harrison was able to accomplish all this,” he writes. “The notion that such work could possibly be done by the hand of a sixty-year-old John Harrison still beggars belief.”

In Harrison's wake came all the precision engineers who would increasingly use machines to construct every more precise machines. A great many of those engineers will be unknown to readers – figures like hydraulic engineer Joseph Bramah or British mathematician Jesse Ramsden, whose astronomical instruments were famed for their exacting accuracy. Other names in the roster are more familiar, although often here presented in new lights. The story of famous auto-maker Henry Ford, for instance, takes on new dimensions when told alongside that of Henry Royce, one of the founders of the iconic Rolls-Royce manufacturers.

“Had there been more justice in the world,” Winchester puckishly points out, “the company would have been named Royce-Rolls, as Henry Royce was the man who made the cars, while Charles Rolls simply (and flamboyantly) sold them.”

Winchester carefully and entertainingly furthers his story from mechanics to precision to hyper-precision of the kind that, for example, led to the great line of Leica lenses prized by photographers for decades. “There are certain ineradicable truths in the world of optical hyperprecision,” he writes, “and one of them, by near-universal agreement, is that the best Leica lenses are and long have been of unsurpassed quality, and deservedly represent the cynosure of the optical arts.”

The story Winchester tells is one of steady, almost inexorably increasing complexity, and this can make the book's later sections heavier going for the lay reader. “The mechanical polishing and grinding,” of complex lenses, those readers are told, “is performed to one-quarter lambda, or one-quarter of the wavelength of light, with lens surfaces machined to tolerances of 500 nanometers, or 0.0005 mm.”

It's a testament to Winchester's narrative skill, honed over two dozen books, that he makes even the most arcane of technical specifics smoothly comprehensible in context – no mean feat when he's dealing with something like extreme ultraviolet radiation (EUV), which has “a specific wavelength of 13.5 billionths of a meter” and is best produced “by firing a conventional high-powered laser at a suitable metal.”

"The Perfectionists" is at heart an account of the unsung heroes of our modern world. Our skies are criss-crossed by satellites; our horizons are dotted with cell-towers; our hospitals are stocked with portable miracle-machines; we carry in our pockets phones with greater computing complexity than the vast banks of data processors that put humans on the moon only half a century ago. All of these things were made possible by the reclusive, obsessive perfectionists who get their just praise in these pages.

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