How the human search for technological exactitude shaped the modern world

by Peter Calder / 05 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Exactly Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester: breathing life into history. Photo/Alamy

Simon Winchester’s engrossing history of precision machinery goes from the steam age to the space age and beyond.

In the final chapter of this highly entertaining history of the human search for technological exactitude, Simon Winchester visits the headquarters of Seiko, whose commercial quartz wristwatches made precise personal timekeeping affordable.

He ruminates ruefully about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic sensibility that values craftsmanship, “roughness and impermanence”. Might there be, he finds himself wondering, “simply too much precision” in the world?

The Seiko visit serves to assuage his misgivings a little. The quartz revolution decimated sales of mechanical watches, so Seiko stopped producing the latter in 1978. But the Japanese “lingering love affair” with craftsmanship prompted a rethink. Today, the electronic side of the plant pumps out 25,000 quartz watches a day; two-dozen watchmakers create barely 100 of the old-fashioned kind. And that side of the operation is doing just fine.

It’s a sweet note on which to conclude Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, which takes us from the steam age to the space age and beyond: in 2015, laser interferometers detected the gravitational waves Einstein had predicted almost a century earlier, and can measure distances as far as 26 trillion miles with a margin of error of the width of a human hair.

Winchester is a master at plucking stories from the pages of history and breathing life into them. After two enthralling books about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, he has turned his attention since to such diverse subjects as the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the real Alice (the Wonderland one).

In Exactly, he makes a brief dip into the ancient world with a story about the Antikythera mechanism, a first-century BC orrery that can reasonably lay claim to being the earliest analogue computer. But the substance of the story begins in the late 18th century with John Wilkinson, who invented a machine that bored a precise hole through a solid block of iron and made a cylinder that stopped Watt’s steam engine from leaking pressure. (It’s one of the delightful circularities of the story that the steam engine and that laser interferometer are both based on cylinders: one is accurate to within a 10th of an inch; the other to 10-35 of an inch.)

Winchester tells the stories of, among others, Henry Maudslay (perfectly flat surfaces), Joseph Whitworth (standardised screws) and two very different car-making enterprises started by men called Henry (Royce and Ford). Each new phase of development is anchored by an engrossing yarn, and highly technical detail is made intelligible and entertaining.

There are irritations: many footnotes include material that would have fitted well in the main text; illustrations are few and of poor quality; and although this is an English edition (the US title is The Perfectionists), it adopts American spellings, most grievously erasing the distinction between the suffixes “-metre” (a unit of measure) and “-meter” (a measuring instrument). This last is regrettable in a book dedicated to the concept of precision, but it delivers many joys to compensate.

EXACTLY: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (William Collins, NZ rep HarperCollins, $36)

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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