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In 'The Perfectionists' Simon Winchester Looks At History Of Precision Engineering


Today's technology demands perfection, precise and accurate measurements, perfect timing. On this week's All Tech Considered, we explore the history of perfection from 18th century England to today's Silicon Valley.


KELLY: The author Simon Winchester has taken on subjects as diverse as the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. You may remember his book "The Professor And The Madman." Well, Winchester's latest is titled "The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World." And Simon Winchester joins us now from our New York studios. Welcome.


KELLY: I love the idea for where this book came from. You write that you got an email one day from a complete stranger who said, you ought to write a book about the history of precision. You obviously liked the idea.

WINCHESTER: I did. And he was an extraordinary man. He's a scientific glassblower and has this passion for numbers and things that are perfect and precise and exact and accurate. And he thinks this is invisible. It's sort of hidden in plain sight, but it's essential to our world. So why not write a book about it? And I thought, my gosh, that's not a bad idea.

KELLY: So you actually pick one figure from history who you say is widely regarded as the father of precision. This is an 18th century Englishman John Wilkinson. Who was he?

WINCHESTER: Yes, John Iron-Mad Wilkinson, as he was called, was an ironmaster, which is not a profession you hear often today. But he was obsessed with the metal. And he had an iron coffin, which he kept in his workshop, and would lie in and jump out of occasionally to startle people. He had an iron boat. He had iron everything.

Anyway, in order to make one particular thing ordered from James Watt, whose name you'll know as a creator of the steam engine.

KELLY: Sure, the Scottish engineer.

WINCHESTER: Indeed. He ordered an engine and he said, the problem with that is the cylinder. There's a piston which goes up and down, but it's so sloppily inside the cylinder that it really doesn't work at all. He said, I can make out of a solid piece of iron and using a drill mounted on wheels, which are moved into the face of the piece of iron, a cylinder which is precise.

And he drilled a hole, which was perfectly straight and true. The piston fitted into it. And lo and behold, the steam engine worked, and we're off to the races. The industrial revolution begins.

KELLY: Now, you track when precision and the pursuit of perfection started to make its way across the Atlantic. What happened in the history of gun making that was so revolutionary and brought precision engineering here to the U.S.?

WINCHESTER: Well, the first important thing is that it was all down to Thomas Jefferson. He was in Paris. And a man called Onnoy Blanc (ph), a Frenchman who had taken the ideas of John Wilkinson and started to run with them, realized that there was a good way, an efficient way of making the parts of a flintlock gun. A flintlock, the thing that produces the spark, has got about 10 pieces in it.

What previously happened is that if a gun broke, you'd have to go to the gunmaker and make a completely new one from scratch. But he said, what if all the parts were exactly the same, if they were interchangeable? And that's the key phrase.

KELLY: And, Simon Winchester, no one had thought of that before?

WINCHESTER: This sounds simple to us today but nobody in the 18th century had thought of it. Thomas Jefferson saw the process, he was invited to a demonstration in Paris, wrote a letter, which was hand carried in a packet across the Atlantic to the then secretary of war in Washington. Eventually, a demonstration was arranged in Harper's Ferry, Va., and then the American gun industry started with a vengeance.

KELLY: Let me zip you all the way up to present day and the matter of jet engines and specifically, to the story of a Qantas jet, which had a horrific malfunction in the air. Nobody was hurt, but it's quite a tale. Tell us briefly the story and how that fits into this theme.

WINCHESTER: Well, this was a Qantas Airbus A380, one of these gigantic double-decker aircraft. It was going from Singapore to Sydney.

KELLY: Give us the year.

WINCHESTER: Twenty-ten.


WINCHESTER: It was early in the morning. It took off, went up to 7,000 feet, massive explosion in the inboard port side, left side engine - shrapnel all over the place, much like what occurred in the Southwest Airlines flight the other day.

KELLY: And what did they figure out had gone wrong?

WINCHESTER: What had happened is that an oil feed pipe had been incorrectly machined in a factory in England. And it broke and sprayed hot oil onto the rotor blades. This caused the rotor itself to wobble and then to break and then everything in the middle of the engine broke, spun right out of the casing of the engine, mercifully didn't hit the fuselage, but destroyed much of the wing, most of the hydraulics and made the plane almost unflyable.

KELLY: So what is the lesson here?

WINCHESTER: The lesson here is that if you're making things to such incredible tolerances, A, you've got to be really careful, which the engineer in Hucknall in Northamptonshire was not. He only made a fraction of a millimeter of an error, but it was enough to bring that plane nearly down and to kill 500 people nearly. But also, to question are we pushing precision, the limits, too far? Because we're reaching limits now. I mean, in my and your iPhone, there are 4 billion, with a B, transistors.

A transistor when it was invented in 1948 was about as big as your hand. There are more transistors in the world today than there are leaves on all the trees in all the world. That's an incredible fact.

KELLY: Really?

WINCHESTER: But it means we're operating at levels of precision which are right down at atomic levels where if you know your Heisenberg, it all gets really weird. Is it waves? Is it matter? Is it photons? Is it electrons?

KELLY: You're talking dimensions that even a machine would struggle to measure.

WINCHESTER: Yes. I mean, there's a classic example. A modern transistor is much smaller than the wavelength of light, which means you can't possibly even see it. And that makes one wonder, are we going too far? Are there limits? And maybe with robotics and artificial intelligence and so forth coming down the pike, are we in danger of fetishizing precision, making it too important a part of our life and losing our respect and admiration for craftsmanship, for working with wood and all those sorts of things?

KELLY: You write about that in such a personal way in the book. You include the detail of your Sunday morning ritual, of walking room to room in this old farmhouse you live in and correcting all the clocks, you know, pushing one hand forward a little bit and another hand back, and that you love the inaccuracy of that, that they're all chiming totally out of sync by midway through the next week.

WINCHESTER: Yes, a lovely description in Dorothy L. Sayers' book "Gaudy Night" about the clocks in Oxford chiming midnight in friendly disagreement. Well, I like clocks having friendly disagreement. I loathe digital watches with, I mean, the one I dare say you're looking at in the studio now, with microsecond countdowns. Let's take it a bit easier. Let's be a bit fuzzy in our needs and desires and wishes.

KELLY: Well, it has been a pleasure speaking with you about precision and maybe the limits of precision. Simon Winchester, thank you.

WINCHESTER: Thank you very much.

KELLY: His new book is "The Perfectionist: How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World."

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Our guest incorrectly says the transistor was invented in 1948. It was actually invented in 1947 and then announced the following year.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 10, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
Our guest incorrectly says the transistor was invented in 1948. It was actually invented in 1947 and then announced the following year.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.