HOW PRECISION ENGINEERS CREATED THE MODERN WORLD
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