cover image The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Simon Winchester. Harper, $29.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-265255-3

Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) smoothly mixes history, science, and biographical sketches to pay homage to the work of precision engineers, whom he credits with the creation of everything from unpickable locks to gravity wave detectors and the Hubble Telescope. He credits the start of modern precision engineering to “iron-mad” John Wilkinson, an eccentric 18th-century English engineer whose method for casting and boring iron cannons led to the manufacture of smooth-running pistons and cylinders that were then used in the steam engines of James Watt. The son of a precision engineer, Winchester clearly delights in the topic, relating his stories with verve, enthusiasm, and wit. Henry Royce and the Rolls-Royce automobiles he designed contrast with Henry Ford’s inexpensive, “reliably unreliable” bare-bones assembly line cars. The author paints historic characters vividly, including engineer Joseph Whitworth, described as “large and bearded and oyster-eyed”; cabinet-maker Joseph Bramah, who patented the flush toilet; tech aficionado Prince Albert; and rapacious businessman Eli Whitney, who lied about using Frenchman Honoré Blanc’s idea for standardized parts for flintlocks in his winning bid for a U.S. government contract for 10,000 muskets. Winchester’s latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs. (May)