Book review: “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World”

Really, I picked up this book because it had the word “engineers” in it. It didn’t perfectly match what I do on a day-to-day basis, but part of that reason is my own fault: dabbling at the edges of engineering in medicine and neuroscience does that to you. This book deals with gadgets and machinery and metal, and lots of it. The book spans everything from the invention of the steam engine up to the detection of gravitational waves. The connecting thread? Precision, defined by the book as the degree of refinement in a specification: to how many zeroes can reliably and reproducibly make a measurement? Can I measure weight to the kilogram, the gram, the milligram, or the microgram? The book is cleverly organized by the amount of precision achievable at any given time going from 0.1 to 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01 tolerance.

As an experimentalist, I can definitely appreciate good precision. When I take a measurement in the lab, the better precision I can achieve, the more likely I am going to be able to draw some kind of conclusion from my data. Imprecise measurements mean more uncertainty. Oddly enough, the topic of uncertainty never came up in the book, but perhaps that’s another story. Precision in and of itself is a story that doesn’t get told very often, even among engineers. Most of the names in this book were news to me. I didn’t know that it was John Wilkinson’s patent on boring cannons provided the precision necessary to make steam engines that sparked the Industrial Revolution. Nor did I know about the more modern advances in precision that made quartz clocks, jet engines, and the Hubble telescope possible. Precision, as the author suggests, is something the modern world takes for granted:

Precision is an essential component of the modern world, yet is invisible, hidden in plain sight. We all that machines have to be precise; we all recognize that items that are of importance to us (our camera, our cellphone, our computer, our bicycle, our car, our dishwasher, our ballpoint pen) have to sport components that fit together with precision and operate with near perfection; 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 taken for granted, is largely unseen, can seldom be fully imagined, and is rarely properly discussed, at least by those of us in the laity.

Also of interest, and something I didn’t even think about, was precision has a definite date of invention: precision increased over time, but there is a definite start date before which precision wasn’t a thing: Precisions’ birth derives from the then-imagined possibility of maybe holding and managing and directing steam, this invisible gaseous form of boiling water, so as to create power from it… And all that, what turned out to be one of the most singular of engineering epiphanies, took place in North Wales on a cool May day in 1776– by coincidence, within weeks of the founding of the United States of America.

The author has a beautiful way of fleshing out technical details, while simultaneously helping you place their overall significance. It is beautiful prose, not dry in the least. One thing I found quite entertaining was picking out the British idioms along the way, things like It was not all beer and skittles, there were sufficient patches of blue sky to mend a sailor’s trousers, a Turk’s head of wires of such confusion, and a powerful piece of kit. He also has a philosophical bent, one of my favorite chapters being entitled On the Necessity of Equipoise reflecting on whether we actually need such high amounts of precision, and how to balance the imperfect and the precise in our lives:

Humankind more generally, obsessed and impressed today with the perceived worth of the finely finished edge and the perfectly spherical bearing and by degrees of flatness that are not known outside the world of the engineer, would perhaps do well similarly to learn to accept the equal significance, the equal weight, of the natural order. If not, then nature will in time overrun, and the green strands of jungle grass will eventually enfold and enwrap the inventions that we make, no matter whether their tolerance is that of the thickness of an English shilling or the fraction of the diameter of a proton.

I liked this balance to the story– not one of endless dominance of man’s intellect over nature, bending it to our will. I feel similarly about my own profession, feeling a call to remind my fellows of the importance of the humanities– things that can’t be measured, but whose importance is increasingly taken for granted.

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