Picture of the two conversantAnd then it was time to hop into the car, and drive over the lake for the sold-out session (as indeed was my first session of the day), Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler. There was no time for lunch!

Why did I choose this session? Why not? It’s Simon Winchester!

This session was also recorded by ABC RN for Richard Fidler’s Conversations program.

The conversation focused on the prolific historian’s latest book Exactly: How precision engineers changed the world (which was published in the USA as The perfectionists, with the same subtitle). I like our title better, as perfectionism can carry a hint of judgement, don’t you think? Anyhow, the conversation covered a number of topics, including his inspiration for the book, the history of precision, stories about precision, and the impact and future of precision. I’m going to try really, really hard to keep this one short because I don’t think I need to tell you all about the content of the book which was the main focus. I’m going to dot point some of the interesting facts I learnt.

Book coverFirst though – oh oh, will I still be able to keep this short – the book is cleverly (though probably still chronologically) structured according to increasing levels of precision (or, to put it another way, decreasing levels of tolerance.) So, Chapter 1 is Tolerance 0.1, Chapter 2 is 0.0001, right up to Chapter 9, the second last chapter, which is a mind-boggling: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01! We are talking precision after all!

You won’t be surprised that one of the questions Winchester poses is “Are we becoming too focussed on precision?” I’ll leave you to judge.

A propos the book, too, Winchester said that he likes dredging up people overlooked by history (as he did, for example, in The surgeon of Crowthorne and The map that changed the world.)

Now, some interesting, more-or-less random facts:

  • Pioneers of precision engineering were Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), a founding father of machine tool technology, and John ‘Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson (1728-1808), who invented a precision boring machine that helped James Watt get his steam engine off the ground (as it were). Do you know them? They were instrumental in starting the Industrial Revolution.
  • Precision has a precise birth-date! 4 May 1776 (which Star Wars aficionados apparently know for another reason!) This is the day Wilkinson’s cylinder boring machine was delivered to Watt. Its precision was one-tenth (0.1, you see) of an inch.
  • The concept of interchangeability, which is also crucial to the history of precision and modern manufacturing, started in France in the 1780s with a demonstration of assembling a flintlock gun from boxes of identical parts. Attending that demonstration was Thomas Jefferson who took the idea back to America, for arms manufacture. This idea was also taken up later by …
  • Two famous car manufacturers, Henry Royce and Henry Ford, who took the idea of interchangeability to a new level. Both born in 1863, Royce wanted to build the finest car in world, while Ford wanted to build a car that would enable as many Americans as possible to see their amazing country. In roughly the same period, Royce’s company made 8,000 Rolls Royces (Silver Ghosts), of which about 6,000 are still in running order, while Ford made 18 million Model Ts, which are all gone! But, they served their purpose, eh? These two men used the same idea with different ethoses: expensive perfection versus economies of scale.
  • The failure in 2010 of Airbus 380, QF 32 demonstrates the importance of precision, being caused by the mis-machining (by Rolls Royce in fact) of a tiny tube. It was half a millimetre too thin.
  • Precision machines at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) were developed to detect infinitesimal cosmic gravitational waves predicted by Einstein in 1916. Almost century later (we must be precise!), in September 2015, these machines recorded such waves.

Fidler found the discussion of precision, interesting but also dizzying and troubling, and he had some questions:

  • Are we fetishising the idea of precision? Fidler talked about being in Iceland without mobile access and the pleasure of having to use a map again. Years later he still has the map of Iceland in his head, which you don’t get when use that precise service, GPS on your mobile devices.
  • Is our focus on such precision something we should worry about? Our modern world is based on a knife-edge of precision, driven by commercial factors. Do we need to go 5 mph faster? Should shareholders demand profits that result in pushing precision to risky levels?
  • Are we forgetting the values of craftsmanship? Does our precise environment make us want to seek the imprecise? Japan, said Winchester, keeps its feet firmly on ground, being famous for precision, but also for fine craftsmanship in materials that can’t be so precise. He talked about Seiko and its super precise quartz movement. However, there’s also a section of their factory which hand assembles mechanical watches, the Grand Seiko, which regularly wins horological awards. These don’t have the same precision, losing 5 seconds per day, but do you upbraid someone for being 5 seconds late!! (Fidler joked about the ABC’s precision and how the news fanfare will occasionally overplay him if he runs late with his sign-off. We know, we’ve seen it happen on TV). Winchester introduced us to the Japanese idea of Wabi sabi, which expresses joy in natural lines.
  • Have we reached limits of precision? No, apparently not. There’s quantum engineering and optical engineering which continue to push boundaries. Meanwhile, much is happening in the world of standards – the standard kilogram, metre and second.

Amazing, really, how something so boring sounding as precision engineering can be so interesting! All helped of course by the talents of Winchester and Fidler.