An ingenious argument that the dazzling advances that produced the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the revolutions that followed owe their success to a single engineering element: precision.
Early on in this entertaining narrative, bestselling journalist and historian Winchester (Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, 2015), whose father “was for all of his working life a precision engineer,” points out that James Watt (1736-1819) invented a vastly improved steam engine, but John Wilkinson (1728-1808) made it work. Watt’s pistons generated enormous energy but moved inside handmade sheet metal cylinders that leaked profusely under the pressure. After years of frustration, he was rescued by Wilkinson, who had invented a machine that bored a precise hole through a solid block of iron. It had already revolutionized cannon manufacture, and it did the same for Watt’s steam engine. Human precision made the Rolls-Royce, which earned the reputation “for precision products made beyond consideration of price,” expensive, but engineering precision made the Model T cheap. An assembly line must stop if one mass-produced part doesn’t fit perfectly into the next, so Henry Ford spared no expense to ensure that it did. Winchester tells the story of a series of increasingly impressive inventions, usually introduced by a journalistic “hook” to engage readers—e.g., an account of an explosion aboard the world’s largest commercial airliner in 2010 precedes his history of the jet engine. In the final chapter, the author does not deny that something vital is lost when human craftsmanship bows before technical perfection, but it’s clear where his heart lies. He sought some answers in Japan, which displays “an aesthetic sensibility wherein asymmetry and roughness and impermanence are accorded every bit as much weight as are the exact, the immaculate, and the precise.”
Less a work of scholarship than an enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels, and readers will love the ride.