The History of Precision

If you are in the measurement business, as most of us are, then you are going to want to carve out some time to read The Perfectionists – How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester. It will take some persistence in places as the author can be very detailed about the mechanics, or the physics, but each time you will be rewarded by a following section, like the inside history of the development of GPS. This has to be the authoritative source on the development of precision throughout the annals of history.

Unfortunately there is no mention of lidar, but I think that is because lidar was not about advancing the state of the art in precision manufacturing.

There were a number of situations where the inventor came up with the breakthrough idea, such as the chronometer, but the technology, particularly in terms of the required precision of parts fitting together was just not possible to achieve. In some cases the manufacturing process itself had to be invented along with the machines and the tools required to make the parts.

The incredible genius and creativity of the inventors who refused to take no for answer is on display throughout the book. I think this still exists in the medical industry, but I am not sure about manufacturing. In the case of semiconductors we are literally down to a single atom in some cases – Moore’s Law may have a few more years, but that is likely to be the end.

It was the steam engine that Winchester credits with the main catalyst of the precision race – getting the main piston to stop leaking required tight tolerances, not so much accuracy in the early days. But as the automobile industry grew the need for standards of measurement became increasingly important.

No more so than in the case of the jet engine which took more than ten years to develop. With only one moving part you would think it would be simple to build, but the temperatures required incredibly creative cooling methods and tolerances.

In the end it turns out that time becomes the most important quantity. Today, it is used as the standard for all the other units of measure because physical objects cannot be trusted – only the frequency of molecules. The meter, after a tortuous ordeal is now defined by frequency, the inverse of time.

You will have a much deeper appreciation for precision and accuracy after reading this book.

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4 Responses to The History of Precision

  1. Matt Daly says:

    Definitely going to read this, thanks for sharing Gene!

  2. Thank you. I have as a geographer read all of Simon Winchester’s books and they are all fascinating. I do mention Lidar in my own book “Interpreting our world–100 discoveries that revolutionized geography”.

  3. Timothy Burch says:

    I just finished reading this masterpiece as well after hearing a short interview with Simon on NPR. The section on GPS is spot on in regards to how tolerances have been reduced over the years. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this great book; I’ve been recommending it to every surveyor I know!

  4. John says:

    I will consider Simon Winchester’s book THE PERFECTIONISTS for my reading. I think I read another book by him.

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