Machines, Memories, and Fathers. Prologue excerpts from Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists

A father never knows how his career will impact his children. Simon Winchester’s opens his book The Perfectionists with memories of his father’s career:

My father was for all his working life a precision engineer. In the closing years of his career, he designed and made minute electric motors for the guidance systems of torpedoes. Most of this work was secret, but once in a while he would smuggle me into one of his factories and I would gaze in either admiration or puzzlement at machines that cut and notched the teeth for tiny brass gearwheels, or that polished steel spindles that seemed no thicker than a human hair, or that wound copper coils around magnets that seemed no bigger than the head of a pipe smoker’s vesta.

Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: Harper, 2018. pg 4

The work characters around a parent’s factory can be important influences. And Simon’s vivid descriptions of working machinery will take you back fifty years or so to a covert British plant:

I remember with great fondness spending time with one of my father’s favored workers, an elderly man in a brown lab coat who, like my father, clasped a pipe between his teeth, leaving it unlit all the time he worked. He wore a permanently incised frown as he sat before the business end of a special lathe—German, my father said; very expensive—watching the cutting edge of a notching toll as it whirled at invisible speed, cooled by a constant stream of a cream-like oil-and-water mixture. The machine hunted and pecked at a small brass dowel, skimming as it did so microscopic coils of yellow metal from its edges as the rod was slowly rotated. I watched intently as, by some curiously magical process, and array of newly cut tiny teeth steadily appeared incised into the metal’s outer margins.

Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: Harper, 2018. pg 4

Simon’s father took pride in both the prestigious and mundane objects his factory produced:

Just like his star employee, my father took singular pride in his profession. He regarded as profound and significant and worthy the business of turning shapeless slugs of hard metal into objects of beauty and utility, each of them finely tuned and neatly finished and fitted for purposes of all imaginable kinds, prosaic and exotic—for as well as weaponry, my father’s plants built devices that went into motorcars and heating fans and down mine shafts; motors that cut diamonds and crushed coffee beans and sat deep inside microscopes, barographs, cameras, and clocks. Not watches, he said ruefully, but table clocks and ships’ chronometers and long-case grandfather clocks, where his gearwheels kept patient time to the phases of the moon and displayed it on the clock dials high up in a thousand hallways.

Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: Harper, 2018. pgs 5,6

No father-son bonding moment is genuine if it doesn’t put Mother on edge:

He would sometimes bring home pieces even more elaborate than but perhaps not quite as magical as the gauge blocks, with their ultra-flat, machined faces. He brought them primarily to amuse me, unveiling them at the dinner table, always to my mother’s chagrin, as they were invariably wrapped in only brown wax paper that marked the table cloth. Will you put that on a piece of newspaper? she’d cry, usually in vain, as by then the piece was out, shining in the dining room lights, its wheels ready to spin, its arms ready to be cranked. its glassware (for often there was a lens or two or a small mirror attached to the device) ready to be demonstrated.

Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: Harper, 2018. pg 6

While his father’s influence didn’t persuade Simon into the precision engineering profession, it must’ve sparked some ambition to write Perfectionists. A father’s enthusiasm and a curious email proved to be quite the fuel:

Though more than half a century has elapsed since those machine happy days of my childhood, the memory still exerts a pull—and never more so than one afternoon in the spring of 2011, when I received, quite unexpectedly, an e-mail from a complete stranger in the town of Clearwater, Florida. It was headed simply “A Suggestion,” and its first paragraph (of three) started without frill or demur: “Why not write a book on the History of Precision?”

My correspondent was a man named Colin Povey, whose principal career had been as a scientific glassblower. The argument he put forward was persuasive in its simplicity: precision, he said, is an essential component of the modern world, yet is invisible, hidden in plain sight.

Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: Harper, 2018. pg 7

An inspiring read.


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