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Highlights: The Perfectionists

How precision engineers created the modern world.

Over Thanksgiving I had some time to read The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, 2018.

Each day he measured the shells, and found that they and their casings retained their design integrity perfectly, fitting the gun barrels just as well at each of the railway depots as they had when they left the production lines. Then he boarded the cargo ship. ... They were stacked in crates deep in the ship's hold. As the vessel rocked and heeled in the storm, those crates on the outher edges of the stacks, and only those, would crash into the sides of the ship. If they hit repeatedly...the bullet...would be shoved backward...into its brass cartridge case. This collision...caused the case to distort... ...once the ship had docked and the stevedoers had unloaded the crates and the ammunition...sent out to the various regiments, no one knew what order the shells would be in - would, as a result, not fit into the gun barrels out on the battlefield. 9-10

After thirty-one years of near-obsessive work, [John] Harrison managed to squeeze almost all of the improvements he had engineered into his large pendulum clocks into this single five-inch silver case, and add some others, to make certain that his timekeeper was as close to chronological infallibility as was humanly possible. 34

[John] Wilkinson filed a patent, Number 1063..."A New Method of Casting and Boring Iron Guns or Cannon." By today's standards his "new method" seems almost pedestrian and an all-too-obvious improvement in cannon making. Up until then [1774], naval cannons...were cast hollow, with the interior tube through which the powder and projectile were pushed and fired performed as the iron was cooling in its mold. 41

Winchester is a pretty drawn-out writer. Wilkinson's new method was to cast cannon whole, then bore their bores with a boring bar. This greatly improved the straightness of the bore, with walls having many fewer defects and much more uniform thickness.

...[Henry Maudslay] solved [Joseph] Bramah's supply problems in an inkling - but not by the conventional means of hiring additional workers who would make the locks one by one through the means of their own craftsmanship. ... He built a whole family of machine tools, in fact, that would each make, or help to make, the various parts of the fantastically complicated locks Joseph Bramah had designed. They would make the parts, they would make the fast and well and cheaply, and they would make them without the errors handcrafting and the use of hand tools inevitably bring in their train. 60

Where more than a hundred skilled craftsmen had once worked, and had filled, just, the Navy's insatiable appetite [for block and tackle for sailing ships], now this thundering factory could feed it with ease, without ever breaking a sweat: the Portsmouth Block MIlls would turn out the required one hundred thirty thousand blocks each year, one finished block every minute of every working day, and yet it required a crew of just ten men to operate it. ...

The Lords of Admirality declared themselves content. [Sir Marc] Brunel received a check for the money saved in one year: £17,093. [Henry] Maudslay received £12,000 and the acclaim of the public and of the engineering fraternity and became generally regarded as one of the most important figures in the early days of precision engineering and one of the prime movers of the Industrial Revolution.

To any informed engineer, however, the name Eli Whitney signifies something very different: confidence man, trickster, fraud, charlatan. And his alleged charlatanry derives almost wholly from his association with the gun trade, with precision manufacturing, and with the promise ov being able to deliver weapons assembled from interchangeable parts. "I am persuaded," he declared with a flourish of elaborate solemnity in his bid to make a cache of guns for the U.S. government, "to make the same parts of different guns, as the lock for example, as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copperplate engraving." It was uttermost piffle. When Whitney won the commission and signed the government contract in 1798, he knew nothing about muskets and even less about their components: he won the order largely because of his Yale connections and the old alumni network that, even then, flourished in the corridors of power in Washington D.C. 95

...the use by Henry Ford of an additional invention that helped make it possible for the cost of his Model T to decrease almost every year during its eighteen years of production, to go down in price from $850 in 1908 to $345 in 1916, to a stunningly affordable $260 in 1925. The car was the same, the materials the same, but the means of production had become vastly more efficient. 167 That additional invention was [Johansson] gauge blocks (Jo Blocks) which permitted parts to be measured and held to the same standard.

"Stratosphere plane?" was the note taken on September 11 of that year [1935] by the firm's senior partner, Lancelot Law Whyte... [Whyte] loved [Frank] Whittle's idea not because it might make money, but because of its sheer elegance, and because "every great advance replaces traditional complexities by a new simplicity." 185 Whyte was the first non-Royal Air Force money to invest in building the first jet engines designed by Frank Whittle.

Advancing precision, as a concept, in manufacture, and in measurement, is used to organize this book. I found the first half interesting as it provides a different lens to the advent and professionalization of engineering. Later on, essentially after the jet engine, the most precise thing quickly becomes modern: optics and telescopes, atomic clocks and GPS, extreme-UV lithography, LIGO.

This transition from individual invention to large teams becomes much less interesting and my greater familiarity with these current technologies made the drawn-out phrasing much more tedious, but non-engineers may well enjoy this narrative introduction to the concept of precision.