“The Perfectionists” is a survey of centuries-long human efforts to use precise measurement to create technological wonders. One of its main effects, alas, is to remind you how far beyond the average citizen’s comprehension those wonders are.

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Book review

Author Simon Winchester is a difficult fellow to pin down.

His breakthrough book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, “The Professor and the Madman,” suggested he came from the world of lexicography. Other books found him exploring seismology (“A Crack in the Edge of the World”), ocean history (“Pacific,” “Atlantic”), the fractious politics of the Balkans (“The Fracture Zone”) and numerous other topics.

He’s a curiosity-driven writer unafraid to plunge into fields of study that would scare off many nonspecialists. But in “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World,” he may have met his match — or his readers’ match.

“The Perfectionists” is a survey of centuries-long human efforts to use precise measurement to create technological wonders. One of its main effects, alas, is to remind you how far beyond the average citizen’s comprehension those wonders are.

“We all know that machines have to be precise,” Winchester writes, “and we all probably suppose that the more precise things are, the better they are. At the same time, this phenomenon of precision, like oxygen or the English language, is something we take for granted, is largely unseen, can seldom be fully imagined, and is rarely properly discussed, at least by those of us in the laity.”

As Winchester points out, there is an Official History of precision that has a beginning, numerous interim phases and a possible endpoint lurking somewhere in ambiguous subatomic realms. That history, at every stage, has affected nations’ economic and political destinies.

One example: The burning of the White House in the War of 1812 can be blamed partly on American soldiers’ damaged weapons needing to be hand-repaired. The idea of interchangeable replacement parts had not yet been put into practice, leaving soldiers defenseless on the battlefield.

The earliest stages of precision’s history are the easiest to grasp. Key to understanding them is the notion of “tolerance”: a mechanical component’s “agreed or stated amount of permissible variation in its dimensions or geometry” that lets it fit and function in another mechanism. “The more precise the manufactured piece,” Winchester notes, “the greater the tolerance that will be needed.”

A tolerance of one-tenth-of-an-inch in the fit of a piston into a cylinder was sufficient, in 1776, to let inventor John Wilkinson prevent James Watt’s steam engine from leaking vast clouds of steam. By the time Joseph Whitworth introduced innovations in drills, lathes and standardized screws at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, he had honed tolerance to one-millionth-of-an-inch accuracy.

The age of jet travel and silicon chips, in turn, introduced degrees of precision even further beyond the capacity of the human eye to measure. (Personal note: It’s embarrassing how hard I had to struggle to grasp Winchester’s details on how an 18th-century steam engine worked. But it’s positively unnerving to be reminded of how far beyond our understanding most 21st-century technology is.)

Wherever he can, Winchester throws in lively anecdotes, including some from his own boyhood. And when peculiar personalities turn up in his narrative, as they often do, he makes the most of it.

Take 19th-century mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce: “On the plus side of the ledger: He could stand before a blackboard and write a mathematical theory on it with his right hand on the right side and, simultaneously, write its solution with his left hand on the left. On the minus side: He was once sued by his cook for hitting her with a brick. He drank. He took laudanum. He was much married, and was pathologically unfaithful.”

Winchester’s courtly prose can sometimes feel a little clotted, but it can be fun too (for instance, when he talks about “anacondas of electrical wires” wrapped around a Rolls-Royce engine). He does his best, sometimes to headache-inducing degree, to help you understand the technological workings of the Global Positioning System (GPS), Hubble Space Telescope and — of local interest — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Hanford.

That may be deeper into the weeds than some readers want to go. But we’re living in this world created by a string of geniuses — so it surely behooves us to try to understand it.


“The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World” by Simon Winchester; Harper; 395 pp.; $29.99

Simon Winchester will appear at 1 p.m., Wednesday, May 23, at Ravenna Third Place Literary Luncheon Series, 6504 20th Ave N.E., Seattle; $45 ($49.54 with tax) includes lunch and copy of book (206-525-2347 or thirdplacebooks.com/ravenna) and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 23, University Prep, 8000 25th Ave. N.E., Seattle; $5 (206-624-6600 or townhallseattle.org)