The 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. Yet it is always there, an essential aspect of modernity that makes the modern possible.Simon Winchester
According to author Simon Winchester, humankind has for most of its civilized existence been in the habit of measuring things:
- How far from this river to that hill?
- How tall is this man, that cow?
- How much milk shall I barter?
- What weight is that cow?
- How much length of cloth is required?
- How long has elapsed since the sun rose this morning?
- And what is the time right now?
All of it depends to some extent on measurement, and in the very earliest days of social organization a clear indication of advancement and sophistication was the degree to which systems of measurement had been established, codified, agreed to, and employed.
The later development of precision demanded not so much a range of exotically named units of measure, but trusted standards against which these lengths and weights and volumes and time and speeds, in whatever units they happened to be designated, could be measured.
In The Perfectionists, New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester 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.
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?
As is the typical week, I have several books in process at once – and a couple of them happen to be works by Simon Winchester. I’ll be talking more about them in future, but when this one came in on my library hold list, I had to get to it immediately.
When the book is entitled The Perfectionist, and the chapters are delineated by the measurements of the stories they contain (from .1 inch to 10 to the -28th gram), you know it is not only going to be a fascinating read, but one that explains our world, and our future, in unique ways.
Like me, Winchester is not an engineer – and that’s probably why this curious history of a common word not commonly thought of is a great read.
Part of a regular series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader
During my elementary school years one of the things I looked forward to the most was the delivery of “My Weekly Reader,” a weekly educational magazine designed for children and containing news-based, current events.
It became a regular part of my love for reading, and helped develop my curiosity about the world around us.