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Exactly : How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World - Simon Winchester


How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World


Published: 8th May 2018
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Review by Robert O'Hearn

Oh, how I love the return of Simon Winchester! He is such an enthusiastic storyteller, and his love of language and ideas is contagious. Loyal readers will know a Winchester book is a journey with many an engaging diversion, and where an explanation of a scientific principle may end up explaining a great deal about us crazy humans along the way. Ostensibly a history of precision engineering, Exactly is really a kind of love story to the idea of human-made perfection, of achieving with material form that which rivals nature.

The characters in this highly enjoyable tale are the obsessive perfectionists who relentlessly seek ultra-precision in machining to ever-lower tolerances. This is a ripping narrative full of quirky polymaths, rival inventions and eureka breakthroughs, telling of a pursuit that has become less about problem-solving than of controlling physics itself. Winchester is always engaging, and the anecdotes about Rolls Royce are worth the price alone. I love this kind of book, and I’m no machine nerd.

You need no strong interest in engineering for this ride, because Winchester will deftly shows you all you need, with examples from cannons to quantum computing. You may never look at screws or padlocks or clocks the same way again after this. A riveting read? Yes, exactly.


Best-selling author Simon Winchester maps the amazing trajectory of the fathers of engineering. The lives of Wilkinson, Whitworth, Maudslay, Bramah, and Ramsden are interwoven with anecdotes such as the invention of the Rolls-Royce and Thomas Jefferson's innovations, offering a fascinating narrative about the men who shaped today's world. Through stories of their trials and tribulations, Exactly celebrates the memorable men who shaped today's world through their early innovation in engineering.

John Wilkinson, known as ‘“Iron-Mad” Wilkinson' became one of the richest Englishmen of the industrial revolution following the invention of perfectly round cylinders, which forever changed the steam engine business. Joseph Bramah masterminded an eclectic array of inventions, not least the banknote numbering machine, the beer tap, the hydraulic press, and locks. Jesse Ramsden crafted precise optical instruments. As the first man to create a perfect sheet of steel, Henry Maudslay virtually invented the concept of precision. His peer Joseph Whitworth standardised it through the British Standard Whitworth system for imperial measurement – a framework that guides the railway, shipbuilding and car manufacturing industries to this day.

Simon Winchester chronicles the genesis of precision by shining a light on the quintet of pioneers who enabled us to see as far as the moon and as close as the Higgs boson through their unparalleled work of minutiae.

About the Author

Simon Winchester is the bestselling author of Atlanic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack In The Edge Of The World, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed The World, The Surgeon Of Crowthorne (The Professor And The Madman), The Fracture Zone, Outposts and Korea among many other titles. In 2006 he was awarded an OBE. He lives in western Massachusetts and New York City.

`An ingenious argument that the dazzling advances that produced the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the revolutions that followed owe their success to a single engineering element: precision ... An enthusiastic popular-science tour of technological marvels ... readers will love the ride' Kirkus

`Another gem from one of the world's justly celebrated historians specializing in unusual and always fascinating subjects and people' Booklist (starred review)

`Winchester's latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs' Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for Simon Winchester:

'Splendid. Lively, pacy, riveting. We learn a great deal and Winchester, storyteller to the core, wears his erudition lightly' Spectator

'Winchester unfolds this epic narrative with admirable simplicity: his prose style is conversational, and crackles with strange images. He marries even-handed scholarship with a gift for storytelling, neither dumbing down nor assuming any specific knowledge in his readership. This is from start to finish an enthralling book, and one that does justice to the magnitude of its subject' Edmund Gordon, Sunday Times

'Illuminating...a wonderful, encyclopaedic book, pinpointing key moments in the narrative of an entire ocean and our relationship to it' Philip Hoare, Sunday Telegraph

`[A] fabulous book' Scotsman

'Winchester proves himself not just a fine researcher and storyteller, but also a gifted stylist. He is the perfect narrator for such a catastrophe' Observer

`An engaging account' Mail on Sunday

`[Winchester] is maddeningly gifted ... a rollicking ride' Washington Post

`Enjoyable and richly informative' Telegraph

'Bracingly apocalyptic stuff: atmospheric, chock full of information and with a constantly escalating sense of pace and tension' Sunday Telegraph

`Gripping. Takes us right to the heart of the worst natural disaster in recorded history. Winchester makes an excellent companion' Daily Telegraph

Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is the author of several books, including works of travel writing, history and acclaimed biography, including The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998). The Map That Changed the World (2001), is the story of William Smith, the 19th-century engineer and father of modern geology; and Krakatoa - The Day the World Exploded: 27 August 1883 (2003), explores the drama surrounding the 19th-century eruption of the Javanese volcano. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003), was shortlisted for the 2003 British Book Awards History Book of the Year, and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906was published in 2005. Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of ChinaThe Alice Behind Wonderland, an exploration of Lewis Carroll's creation of the Lewis Carroll classic. Simon Winchester was awarded an OBE in 2006, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford, in 2009, and continues to publish widely on geological subjects

Visit Simon Winchester's Booktopia Author Page

ISBN: 9780008241773
ISBN-10: 0008241775
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 336
Published: 8th May 2018
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.3  x 3.1
Weight (kg): 0.51