Review: Exactly by Simon Winchester

5 out of 5 stars

Engineers are probably some of the least appreciated people in the UK and yet if you think about it everything is dependent on them. If there were no engineers you would not have items like your phone, your car, bicycles, kitchen gadgets, computers, electricity and even the very infrastructure that means that you can live life in the modern way. Things are much better built now too, compared to even twenty years ago, that extra precision we have got makes for better quality products. But, what is the difference is between accuracy and precision? And how is that making a difference in our modern world.

Beginning with the machines that started the industrial revolution off, steam engines and the rapid improvements that were made in the tolerance and efficiency of them, to the world’s first unpickable lock, and the precision engineering from horologists that made clocks and timepieces more accurate, and people much later than ever before. All of these incremental advances made the things that people were buying a better each time and coupled with new inventions by the likes of  John `Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson and Joseph Whitworth made making things so much easier and made repeatable manufacture possible.

His stories of the way that engineers have made the modern world moves from the open road, where we learn how the Ford Model T was more precisely made than a Rolls-Royce. Each Rolls-Royce was handcrafted and when the men assembling it came across the odd part that didn’t fit they would file and adjust to ensure that it did. Ford did not have the luxury of time to make things fit, each part had to fit, first time, every time. Cars are easy though, compared to aeroplanes, just to get several hundred tonnes of plane, passengers and luggage and off the ground requires another level of engineering expertise. Form the earliest planes that were held together with rivets, modern aircraft are glued together and the jet engines that can lift the great weights into the sky are some of the most powerful machines ever made. The finest engineers have developed turbine blades that can operate in an environment that is actually hotter than the melting temperature of the single crystal titanium alloy that they are made from. Each blade produces more power that an F1 car and they are spinning at around 10,000 rpm. They are reliable too, only very rarely does one of these engines fail, and he describes a flight that had to undertake an emergency landing when one component that was a fraction of a millimetre out self-destructed.

Silicone is immensely important to the modern world. Not only has it been used to fill the gaps in the wall so we can see through them, but its use in lenses have opened up miniature worlds and the wonders of the solar system to us. You are probably carrying around a lot of silicone too; its use in electronics has revolutionised the modern world and the machines that are used to make these ubiquitous microchips that are found in almost everything from coffee machines to watches that can tell you exactly where you are on the planet. These work from the GPS system, a technology that relies on the accurate time as measured using caesium clocks. It is time too that defines our most common measurements like the metre and the kilogramme and rendering the finely made platinum standard items a relic of the museum.

I may have a slight bias in reading and reviewing this as I am an engineer who is qualified in both electronics and mechanical engineering and I have designed things as varied as defence equipment to lighting to speaker cables. I thought that this was a really well-written book about the engineers that have made modern society what it is nowadays. It is well researched and full of interesting and anecdotal tales such as how we can now measure light years to within the width of a human hair that add so much to the story of precision over the years.  I liked the way at the beginning of each chapter the tolerance increases for each change in technology and the precision required to achieve the next level up. Excellent book and can highly recommend.

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2 Comments

  1. I think I’d like this book too – although I’ve heard the comparison between Fords and Rolls Royces many times before – you couldn’t do this book without it. Great review.

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