Precision: its invention, perfection and rise in the modern world

Jun 5, 2018

Steam Engines

Diagram of Watt’s improved steam engine, fig.s 119 – 122, and Hornblower’s steam engine, fig.s 123 – 125. Encyclopaedia Londinensis – pub. 1816 ; Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Humans have a habit of measuring things. Our shoe size. The ingredients in our food. How long it takes to get to work, with or without traffic.

All of these conscious and subconscious calculations rely on accurate measurements. But how do you measure accuracy? What’s the right calculation for precision? Is perfection something that can actually be attained?

In his latest book, “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World,” New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester follows the history of precision, from its inception, to practice, to domination. Early precision tools used to make guns and glass during the Industrial Revolution paved the way for today’s microchips and gene splicing.

But Winchester also gets to the heart of why precision matters. And in the pursuit of transforming the organic to the manufactured, have we lost the art and freedom of craftsmanship?

Host Larry Mantle speaks with Winchester about the making of the book and our human affection for detail.


Simon Winchester, British journalist, broadcaster, and author of many books, including his latest, “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World” (Harper 2018)

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