Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 3: Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler

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.

18 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 3: Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler

  1. LOL I had endless trips to Mr Seiko in St Kilda Rd with my expensive watch that kept losing time! I ended up chucking it out after it went there and back to Japan three times, never any better than it had been before.
    Seriously, I like Winchester: I’ve read quite a few of his books:)

    • Clearly it kept losing more than 5 seconds a day Lisa? I have a Seiko – it’s now 16 years old and I’ve just looked at it – it’s analog, without minute marks, but it’s pretty much spot on.

      I had a feeling you might like Winchester. You would have enjoyed this then. He and Fidler were easy and fun to listen to. I’ve bought the book for Mr Gums.

      • It was my second Seiko, the first one was fine. But yes, it was losing a bit more than a minute a day, which doesn’t sound much but it meant the difference between getting back to my classroom on time after recess, and being late and having to sort out fights that had started in the line.

        • 5 secs a day is one thing, but a minute a day when you are working with the sorts of fine times teachers do is something else, I understand completely.

          I have two Longines watches that were great (one a 21st birthday present), but then one started losing too much time. I need to find a good repairer as I love them too. One, I just need a new watch band for. No Fitbits for me!

  2. Bloody fascinating stuff ! – I should have loved it. The writer of those two books ? – I read them both (when I could still read).

  3. I really enjoy the books by Simon WINCHESTER – The Surgeon of Crowthorne was essentially dealing with the story of a cousin of my great grand-mother – born a Murray – from The Scottish Borders – Sir James A.H. Murray – the editor of the OED to which “the Surgeon” became the top contributor.

  4. This all sounds really fascinating. I love to learn about under appreciated aspects of the world that are very important. Precision is a concept that I guess that I have thought a little about but never to the extent explored here.

    I love the way that the book is structured as you describe it. I may give this a try.

  5. I agree about maps. Despite the zoom in/zoom out google maps can never give you the feel for location that a paper map does (for me). My own interaction with precision was years ago programming AutoCad drawings. Each mm was 40 units and it took me a while to realise that AutoCad ‘thought’ in thou’s – thousandths of an inch.

    • Yes, I do too Bill. I love GPS apps on my devices, and particularly the ability to hone in, but device screen sizes pretty quickly make the zooming out function useless, and that’s when you really want a map.

      Love your precision example.

  6. Loving this series Sue, thanks. I’m a big Simon Winchester fan, although I’m not sure this book will make it to the top of the TBR pile. I’m also reassured by the fact that his “overnight success” with The Surgeon of Crowthorne was actually his fifth or sixth book (or something). I heard him speak years ago, in a masterclass, and he was very modest, and very kind to other writers (he gave us all his email address!)

    • Thanks Michelle. And, haha, yes, re that old “overnight success” assumption people make when someone who has been beavering away, producing, refining their craft, suddenly comes to notice. Wow, that was generous and trusting of him.

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