Books You Should Read: The Perfectionists

After pulling late hours in my school machine shop for a few years, I couldn’t help but wonder, who measures the measurement tools? How did they come to be? I’d heard anecdotes from other students and engineers while they inspected my freshly machined parts, but these stories were one-offs. What I wanted was a tale of industrial precision from start to finish. Years later, I found it.

The story of precision, as told by Simon Winchester, is captured in The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. Published in 2018, Winchester’s overview stretches as far back to the Antikythera mechanism and brings us to present day silicon wafer manufacturing. Of course, this isn’t a chronology of all-things made precisely. Instead, it’s a romp through engineering highlights that hallmark either a certain level of precision manufacturing or a particular way of thinking with repercussions for the future.

Structurally, every chapter follows an increasing order of magnitude in tolerance, what was built, and the implications. I’ll confess that the book only loosely follows this organizational structure. While the first part of the book sticks to the formula pretty closely when discussing tolerances for mechanical components, the later chapters seek out tighter numbers by deviating into precision manufacturing of jet engines, lenses, time-keeping devices, and silicon wafers.

Something I’m particularly fond of is how Winchester manages to tie his history of precision into the everyday engineer’s understanding of the subject. I’m sure plenty of our readers will have heard about James Watt, creator of the steam engine. But I’d bet that most of us probably don’t know about John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson, the machinist who could hold a tight enough tolerance machining iron to bore pistons for Wat] that could actually form an airtight seal. And while plenty of folks will know Thomas Jefferson as a former United States president, they might not know that it was his Francophilia that brought the French creation of interchangeable parts to the United States. The book does this over and over, either shedding light on unfamiliar figures, like Henry Royce and Carl Johansson, shedding new light on familiar figures, like Eli Whitney, or tying the history of machinists together to show how one directly influenced the other.

For capturing a historical piece of non-fiction on what might seem like a dry topic, Winchester does a fantastic job of putting you right back into the moment when history was being made. You’ll can feel the anxiety of a middle-aged Joseph Whitworth, as he prepares to watch Queen Victoria fire his Whitworth Rifle at a target 400 yards away to inaugurate Great Britain’s first National Rifle Association meeting. You’ll be ready to shed a tear at the first successful test flight of early jet-engine powered aircraft. (Unsurprisingly, war plays a big role in making things precisely.) I’ll also mention that this book captures an outstanding retelling of the launch, failure, repair, and eventual success of the Hubble Space Telescope–all while highlighting the precision instrument that failed and dictated such an extravagant repair in the first place. (I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a good hotfix story–in space?)

If you’re curious for some bed-time stories of machinists, scientists, and engineers making things to higher-and-higher standards, you’re in for a treat.

28 thoughts on “Books You Should Read: The Perfectionists

    1. Reminds me of being in the cockpit of a Hercules aircraft. I noticed the two altimeters were 200 m different and asked the pilots about it and they said “we know which one to read”. Then I asked, if you have to do an instruments (only landing) what do you do if all of a sudden they read the same altitude?

        1. Yeah but if you can’t see anything due to bad weather you need to make your calculations and land using instruments only. This is what an instruments only license means.

          It they both started to read the same you don’t know if the other has failed in exactly the same way or the original failed unit has restored function.

          It wouldn’t be good to attempt to land 400 m below the ground.

          1. Well …
            How accurate is your glide scope?
            How long do you wait – descending cautiously before you call a go around?
            Why is your aircraft in the trees at the end of the runway?

  1. Funnily enough it seems that human evolution is really about what we discovered and learned rather than any great changes in the human brain and body which haven’t changed that much over the last 10,000 years. Next evolutionary step ( coming soon apparently) is the technological singularity and the post-human, some sort of silicon based cyborg which will be able to survive floating around the universe after the earth apocalypse it looks like we may be headed for.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Ox Tool Co. Has a solid youtube presence with a bunch of videos on precision machining and measuring. They make a set of lapping plates and are a wealth of information on precision machining as a subject.

    1. Yes, most people in the machining community know Tom. I’d recommend Robrez’s channel for even higher accolades (Robin Renzetti) and Stefan Gotteswinter. All 3 have top notch channels.

      The Perfectionists is on my bookshelf for a while- highly recommended reading if you really want to know where the precision historically comes from. A trip to the American Precision Museum in Vermont helps too

    1. I don’t see the problem ???


      “The previous techniques may be applied to establish or to calibrate any chosen division of the circle, whether it be 13, 20, 160, or 1440 parts, The verification of the most accurate circle-dividing instruments relies ultimately on such elementary proofs, regardless of the expressed magnitude of error,”

      Are you referring to the two commas used instead of full stops. I didn’t even see it to start with so it’s no surprise it was mistaken by OCR.

  3. I did read “The Perfectionists.” There is obviously a British lean to it but that isn’t a huge deal. This book is where I learned that Eli Whitneys interchangeable parts was a scam. There was a lot of things in the book that I already knew but the stories were fun. It was not written by an engineer and it shows but still a decent read.

    The author also did “professor and the madman” about making the dictionary. I haven’t read that one because i saw the movie.

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