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The machine that makes the machine: Simon Winchester on machine tools and the democratisation of precision

John Harrison’s timekeepers… were both precise and accurate, but given that they took years to make and perfect, and were the result of hugely costly craftsmanship, it would be idle to declare them either as candidates or as the fountainhead for true and world-changing precision.

For precision to be a phenomenon that would entirely alter human society, as it undeniably has done and will do for the foreseeable future, it has to be expressed in a form that is duplicable; it has to be possible for the same precise artifact to be made again and again with comparative ease and at a reasonable frequency and cost.

Any true and knowledgeable craftsman (just like John Harrison) may be able, if equipped with sufficient skill, ample time, and tools and material of quality, to make one thing of elegance and evident precision. He may even make three or four or five of the same thing. And all will be beautiful, and most will inspire awe.

Large cabinets in museums devoted to the history of science (most notably at Oxford and Cambridge and Yale) are today filled with such objects. There are astrolabes and orreries, armillary spheres and astraria, octants and quadrants, and formidably elaborate sextants, both mural and framed, which are to be seen in particular abundance, most of them utterly exquisite, intricate, and assembled with a jeweler’s care.

At the same time, all of each instrument was perforce made hand. Every gear was hand-cut, as was every component part … every tangent screw and index mirror… Also, the assembly of each part to every other and the adjustment of the assembled whole all had to be accomplished with, quite literally, fingertip care.

Such an arrangement produced fine and impressive instruments, without a doubt, but given the manner in which they were made and how they were put together, they could necessarily have been available only in rather limited numbers and to a small corps d’√©lite of customers. They may have been precise, but their precision was very much for the few. It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.

And the man who accomplished that single feat, of creating something with great exactitude and making it not by hand but with a machine, and, moreover, with a machine that was specifically created to create it – and I repeat the word created quite deliberately, because a machine that makes machines, known today as a “machine tool,” was, is, and will remain an essential part of the precision story – was the eighteenth-century Englishman denounced for his supposed lunacy because of his passion for iron, the then-uniquely suitable metal from which all his remarkable new devices could be made [- John Wilkinson].

Simon WinchesterExactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (published in the US as the The Perfectionists [Amazon link]

See also:
Schumpeter on who gains from mass production

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