Summary and book reviews of The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

The Perfectionists

How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

by Simon Winchester

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester X
The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester
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  • Published:
    May 2018, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky

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Book Summary

The revered New York Times bestselling author traces the development of technology from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age to explore the single component crucial to advancement - precision - in a superb history that is both an homage and a warning for our future.

The rise of manufacturing could not have happened without an attention to precision. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century England, standards of measurement were established, giving way to the development of machine tools - machines that make machines. Eventually, the application of precision tools and methods resulted in the creation and mass production of items from guns and glass to mirrors, lenses, and cameras - and eventually gave way to further breakthroughs, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider.

Simon Winchester takes us back to origins of the Industrial Age, to England where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who later exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. Winchester moves forward through time, to today's cutting-edge developments occurring around the world, from America to Western Europe to Asia.

As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world as it is, rather than the world as we think we would wish it to be? And can the precise and the natural co-exist in society?

Chapter 5
(TOLERANCE: 0.000 000 000 1)
The Irresistible Lure
of the Highway



So profound was the effect of the Model T Ford on America, so much did it change the nature of the nation . . . its art, its music, its social structure . . . its health and wealth and arrogant insularity, that Henry Ford who was responsible for it all must be seen as the most effective revolutionary . . . —L. J. K. Setright, Drive On! (2003)



I was closing the trunk of a borrowed Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph one midwinter's day in early 1998 when I felt a sudden sharp sensation in my right index finger. I looked down: a drop of blood was bubbling up from a small nick—insignificant in itself, probably not even worth a Band-Aid. Yet, that some part of a brand-new Rolls-Royce motorcar had been sharp enough to inflict a cut—that did seem worthy of note, not least because the Silver Seraph had been deliberately designed to reinforce, maybe even to reestablish, the idea that in 1998, and despite all ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This is compelling science that never flags; it's a tonic for those who wish for a temporary reprieve from the chaos of daily life. It is a stunning display of those who sought to harness the forces around them to create products and technologies that could have been only fashioned with a keen mind, a steady hand, and the ability to strive to produce the same result over and over again. In some instances, as Winchester observes, such as with computer chips, it appears that precision engineering today has outstripped humankind's ability to produce it, but we'll keep trying. The Perfectionists is precisely an extraordinary read.   (Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Winchester's latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Fans of Winchester's previous best sellers will discover this latest to be a delightful and engaging study of the role of historical and modern technology.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Less a work of scholarship than an enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels, and readers will love the ride.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock

U.S. Naval Observatory Master ClockYou have a job interview at 9:30. You plan to leave at 8:50. It's really only a 10-minute walk, but the path cuts through pleasant tree-lined neighborhoods and you know you'll take extra time meandering. Right now, it is 8:45 – or around 8:45 anyway. The DVR time atop the TV says 8:46. The microwave and oven times both say 8:47. And your watch, well, your watch, despite a new battery, inexplicably says 8:41. Your phone, by the way, says 8:45, but to paraphrase the classic band Chicago, does anybody really know what time it is anymore?

Actually, there is one person. At one point in The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester states that he's writing the chapter "to the steady beat of a Seth Thomas thirty-day kitchen clock." When ...

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