We all learned in school that James Watt created the first useful steam engine, but did you know that his machine was still extremely inefficient until John Wilkinson’s method of boring holes through solid blocks of iron allowed precision cylinders to be produced? It turns out the element of “exactness” is very important to modern society. If every component of a computer is not the same, that will affect the performance of that computer, and the same goes for cars, planes and most other things that we completely depend on in our everyday lives. You can’t have “sameness” without precision instruments.
In his new book The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, author Simon Winchester reveals how the concept of precision has driven human achievement for hundreds of years through a series of interesting accounts of magnificent successes and catastrophic failures owed to either the presence or absence of precision. Winchester will give a lecture on this topic this coming Tuesday (5/15/2018).
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Winchester over the phone in preparation for his visit. The man is full of comically insightful anecdotes about a variety of topics. He told me that he started out as a geologist, in his own words “not a very good geologist.” His first job after graduating college was for a Canadian oil company in Africa. His writing career began on the slopes of a mountain in Uganda, during a hiking trip. He was reading an account of the first expedition to summit Mount Everest, written by James Morris, and became captivated by the idea of becoming a professional story-teller himself. For him, sitting in that tent on an empty slope, the spiritual impact could not have been more profound if he had been in a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.
From there he began his career as a journalist. It wasn’t a fast or easy process. For decades he worked for various Newspapers, he became a foreign correspondent to India for the Guardian, he was in Ireland covering events related to the IRA, he was in China for a period and finally ended up in the U.S.. Since then he has retired from journalism to focus on his career as an author. His books, such as The Professor and the Madman (1997) have sold millions of copies.
His long career as a globetrotting journalist has given Winchester a veritable anthology of entertaining anecdotes to pull from and sitting with him in a casual conversation is more fun than any experience that movie theaters have to offer today, and a lot more educational too. For example, he told me that the concept for this book came to him after driving a Rolls Royce across Soviet Russia while writing a series of travel articles for an English newspaper in the mid-1980’s. The idea behind the project was to “introduce British readers to Europe” and it had him traversing most of the continent, not always in comfort. He had rode a motorcycle across Spain, walked across the Black Forest in Germany and finally decided he should spoil himself in Russia. During this final leg of his journey he ended up falling in love with his rented Rolls, with its precision engineering. It was at that point that Winchester’s fascination with the subject of his upcoming book began.
It’s amazing that a word that, in the experience of the average Houstonian, is almost exclusively heard in the context of car commercials can be so important to human history. But when you think of it, the desire to achieve precision has been a common thread of our story from the very beginning. It’s what the Ancient Egyptian needed to build a better pyramid, it’s what the Romans needed to transport water great distances, it’s what Rolls Royce needed to sell their cars for a lot of money and it’s what Henry ford needed to sell his cars for a little money.
Come see what Simon Winchester has to say this Tuesday at 6:30 in our Wortham Giant Screen Theater, I’m sure it will be worth the trip over here.
You can get your tickets HERE