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Onward and Upward

By: Martin Morse Wooster
September 11, 2018

he one thread that ties together Simon Winchester’s many books is that they are about achievers: geologists whose findings helped establish the age of the earth, explorers who were the first to see our country’s major rivers and mountains, and lexicographers who compiled the world’s greatest dictionary.

In his latest book, The Perfectionists, Winchester produces an entertaining and informative look at precision engineering, which aims to produce highly-tuned and highly-accurate precision instruments. Precision engineering allows us to produce jumbo jets and transistors so tiny that many millions can fit on a chip the size of a fingernail. But Winchester warns that the quest for precision can go too far, and that we might well have hit the limit of how precise we can make both machines and the products the machines produce.

Winchester begins in the 18th century, and notes that the origins of precision engineering were military. In 1760, cannons for the British Navy were cast in iron as hollow tubes, and a tool was used to smooth out the tube. This imprecise smoothing tool left the cannon with many weak spots, which ultimately led to them frequently blowing up.

John Wilkinson (1728-1808) was obsessed with iron. He napped in an iron coffin, and enjoyed arising from his fake grave to frighten guests. But he was also a brilliant engineer, who realized that firmly fixing a block of iron and then drilling into it was the best way to build a flawless and reliable cannon. Wilkinson created tools that ensured the cylinders for steam engines could be produced with an accuracy of “an old English shilling” or a tenth of an inch. Wilkinson’s machines, the first tools used to create other tools, ensured that James Watt’s steam engines were reliable and useful.

Winchester shows that the British and American military’s need for precision in the 18th and 19th centuries fueled growth and innovation. But he also shows that the American military was a very early victim of defense contractor fraud.

Eli Whitney has been mostly purged from today’s textbooks, but Baby Boomers will remember that he was the first American manufacturer to produce products—in this case, muskets—made from interchangeable parts. This, Winchester showed, was a myth. Whitney got a contract from the military in 1798 to produce muskets, largely because of connections he made at Yale. For two years he produced nothing, and then, in 1801, showed up in Washington for a demonstration in front of President John Adams, Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, and top military officials.

Whitney unscrewed locks from gunstocks with a screwdriver and then inserted the locks into other gunstocks. He didn’t manufacture the guns; they were handmade by gunsmiths, and only the locks could be changed. But his demonstration fooled everyone, and he received a large contract. After failing to deliver any guns for eight years, his contract was finally cancelled.

Whitney’s fraud ensured that American forces entered the War of 1812 with old, unreliable Springfield 1795 muskets. If a trigger jammed, a soldier was told to wait until the regimental armorer could hammer out a replacement. Soldiers with muskets that couldn’t fire were told to use the bayonet or hit the foe with the gun’s stock. Thus, in the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, many American soldiers with inoperative guns ran away—leaving the British free to sack Washington and burn the White House.

After the war, the armories in Springfield, Massachusetts and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) produced weapons with interchangeable parts. Civilian engineers further refined the discoveries of the military to use precision engineering to create the modern assembly line. Henry Ford could not have created the first mass-produced autos, Winchester shows, without advances in engineering that allowed the parts of a Model A to precisely—and routinely—fit into the identical Model A that was rolling down the factory line.

Today’s precision engineering has ensured the production of a host of indispensable products that improve our lives. Winchester shows this through examples: he visits Chandler, Arizona, where Dutch-made fabricators are capable of producing transistors so small that seven billion of them fit on a chip the size of a fingernail. He also discusses the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory or LIGO. In 2015, LIGO’s staggeringly precise instruments proved the existence of gravitational waves for the first time, because they can measure the 26 trillion miles between the Earth and Alpha Centauri “to within the width of a single human hair.”

Despite the technological marvels precision engineering has created, Winchester wonders if it should dominate our lives. He visits Japan, a country that invented the quartz watch, a reasonably accurate instrument available for a very low price. But Japan also prides itself on craftsmanship, on handmade teakettles and objects made of bamboo that have been made by artists for centuries.

We have room in our world, Winchester concludes, for the artisan and the engineer, for the intricate machine made possible by tolerances in the trillionth of an inch as well as “handmade and…flexibly imprecise craft.” But to determine the role precision engineering should play in our world, we need to understand engineering history. In The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester shows his readers both why engineering matters and the strengths and weaknesses of the devices engineers produce.