The Oldie - - HISTORY -

SI­MON WINCH­ESTER Wil­liam Collins, 395pp, £25, Oldie price £17.30 inc p&p

With one or two ex­cep­tions like Brunel, whose rak­ish de­meanour, in Robert Howlett’s iconic pho­to­graph, sug­gests an affin­ity with but­tons and bows as well as nuts and bolts, great en­gi­neers have lacked what Daisy Dunn in the Sun­day Times called ‘flu­ent so­cial skills’. Which could be why, com­pared with other great men, they are largely un­sung. And yet, as Si­mon Winch­ester re­minds us, the ameni­ties we take for granted – from sew­ers to sat­navs – would not ex­ist with­out me­chan­i­cal ge­niuses and their quest for ‘pre­ci­sion’, which in his view, said the New York Times’s Roma Agrawal, ‘is the ma­jor driver of what we ex­pe­ri­ence as mod­ern life’.

Ap­pro­pri­ately, mod­ern en­gi­neer­ing dates from the En­light­en­ment, with two sem­i­nal in­ven­tions: James Watts’s steam en­gine and John Wilkin­son’s bor­ing de­vice, said to be the first ever ma­chine tool. They paved the way for three of Winch­ester’s ex­em­plars: the Rolls Royce Sil­ver Ghost, the Le­ica cam­era and the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope – all of which could justly be de­scribed as great works of art – and also for the top-se­cret in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing equip­ment he was un­able to de­tail.

Ex­actly might not be best­seller ma­te­rial, said Daisy Dunn, ‘but it is an en­ter­tain­ing read for any­one fas­ci­nated by gad­gets.’ Roma Agrawal agreed: ‘It is in­ter­est­ing, in­for­ma­tive, ex­cit­ing and emo­tional, and for any­one with even some cu­rios­ity about what makes ma­chines work as they do, it’s a real treat.’

Joseph Bazal­gette (top right): build­ing the sewer below Abbey Mills pump­ing sta­tion

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