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Summary

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE BOOK PRIZE 2018 

Best-selling author Simon Winchester writes a magnificent history of the pioneering engineers who developed precision machinery to allow us to see as far as the moon and as close as the Higgs boson.

Precision is the key to everything. It is an integral, unchallenged and essential component of our modern social, mercantile, scientific, mechanical and intellectual landscapes. The items we value in our daily lives - a camera, a phone, a computer, a bicycle, a car, a dishwasher perhaps - all sport components that fit together with precision and operate with near perfection. We also assume that the more precise a device the better it is. And yet whilst we live lives peppered and larded with precision, we are not, when we come to think about it, entirely sure what precision is or what it means. How and when did it begin to build the modern world?

Simon Winchester seeks to answer these questions through stories of precision’s pioneers. Exactly takes us back to the origins of the Industrial Age, to Britain where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John ‘Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden and Joseph Whitworth. Thomas Jefferson exported their discoveries to the United States as manufacturing developed in the early 20th century, with Britain’s Henry Royce developing the Rolls-Royce and Henry Ford mass producing cars, Hattori’s Seiko and Leica lenses, to today’s cutting-edge developments from Europe, Asia and North America.

As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world as it is rather than the world as we think we would wish it to be? And can the precise and the natural coexist in society?

©2018 Simon Winchester (P)2018 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"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)

"Winchester’s latest is a rollicking work of pop science that entertains and informs." (Publishers Weekly)

What listeners say about Exactly

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A beautiful and empathetic clarity of expression

If ever there was a book which is better in its Audible version than in its printed prose this is it. Simon Winchester's love of language and engineering wafts out of this dulcet recording with every chapter providing a story arc which resonates in the mind. I have listened to "Exactly" while walking in Richmond Park, while riding on buses and trains and while resting in bed after a long day. It is one of those rare Audible books which you wish to listen to again and again - the prose becomes a kind of poetry; a sonnet singing the praises of precise engineering and how it has built the modern world.

Much of this book is really new - since the author has pulled together threads from sources which have been classified as state secrets and commercial secrets, accident reports and annual reports. How was it that Rolls Royce nearly caused the death of over 450 people in an air disaster in Singapore? What are the lessons to be learned from this failure? What are the limits of precision?

Capturing machine-processes in words is not easy. But the sonorous Winchester voice over his carefully selected words performs this task admirably. He uses many of the tricks of advocacy to get complex ideas across, describing the same thing three times but using subtly different phrasing and wording so that a composite three-dimensional image can be built up in the mind. This is a master communicator at his best - leaving a legacy in a recording which will be enjoyed for all time.

Listen to it and enjoy it. You will never regret this purchase.


6 people found this helpful

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Inaccurate...

Mr Winchester does himself no favours here, either blinded wilfully or otherwise by his love of metal/mechanics he ignores many first peoples remarkable and very precise use of some of the most difficult materials known, using only the most rudimentary tools. In the most challenging conditions creating calendars, solar clocks, colossal temples and walls of stone so closely fitted they have withstood 1000's of years of seismic activity..and still fit together so closely you cannot push a cigarette paper between them, let alone the inticate jewellery and art of ancient Egypt, the remarkable tiny gold pins from Englands own stoneage craftsmen , ancient hand cut gemstones of exquisite precision, the masons of cathedrals, in fact a plethora of subject matter is conspicuous by its absence. It is also to be noted that his dismissal of the Antikethera mechanism as neither precise nor accurate is frankly myopic, the wonder of this item is in it's very manufacture, the techniques needed and used centuries before the like would be seen again, as he himself says "the lettering chased in millimetre high clarity" - how do you do that without a precise tool? To be precise this story is not accurate.

5 people found this helpful

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Many enlightening stories building up a history

I found this book better than I had expected, as I had anticipated a long chronological history of incremental improvements in technology. Instead, this book tells stories of the history of engineering such as steam engines, pocket watches and the Hubble Space Telescope, with each story interesting in its own right and fitting neatly into the overall narrative of ever-increasing precision.

The chapters, with names like "Precision 0.001" through to "Precision 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 001" (I literally took to counting on my fingers when he read the chapter headings) help give the listener a sense of where each story fits in the grand history.

I'm a fairly technically and scientifically literate person, but I'd happily recommend this book to anyone who was willing to try. If you're not sure if your maths is up to it, I'll say that he never says "ten to the power of twelve" but instead "One with twelve zeros after it", and avoids scientific jargon as a professional technical writer should.

3 people found this helpful

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Full of fascinating insights

Whilst occasionally I've struggled to explain the magic in this book to others, it's definitely there. The central theme is inspirational, but it's also the countless stories of the players big and small which are deftly worked into the larger narrative by Simon that keep this from being purely a technical outpouring. Having the author narrate the audiobook also adds a lot especially as he has brought in a few personal anecdotes.

2 people found this helpful

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Interesting stories, weirdly written.

As an engineer I was very interested in the stories but hated the choice of phrases and language used by the author. It sometimes felt the book was written with a contemptuous air for some of the engineering achievements.

1 person found this helpful

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I never knew THAT

A splendidly wriiten book, tastefully read.
Opening up very intricate and highly technical topics in a style that is easily accessible to the uninformed mind. Briliantly done!

This book is a rich source of understanding of the intracies of aparantlly mundane things. It offers numerous conversation topics and equips one with the right to exclaim in conversation: "Did you know that!?" .


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Brilliant!

Great thoroughly researched content spun together in a very coherent story that has you eagerly waiting for the next chapter to unravel.

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usual excellence

l love the way Simon dances around the subjects , bringing all manor of information into the mix.

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Fascinating stuff

A really fascinating, well researched account of how important accurate measurement has been throughout the ages. I could listen to the narrator, who is also the author, all day long he has such a soothing voice.

1 person found this helpful

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The book is about event stories

I expected the book to be more about events that shaped and derived how being exact affected us and how we measured and arrived at measuring units, like the last chapter. But, it was more focused on stories and events where people used exact measurements to produce quality products.

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  • Angus Black
  • 08-08-18

Consumable Engineering. Excellent!

Satisfying when the author has the right speaking voice for his own body. Fascinating on both personal (anecdotal) and sweep of history levels. Well researched, nicely structured, well paced. I enjoyed this greatly - and furnished my mind in the process.

3 people found this helpful

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  • MREB
  • 17-08-21

Lyrical, scientific, fascinating

His turn of phrase is impeccable.
His scientific explanations are flawless.
His storytelling is exquisite.
Winchester is clearly a doyen in so many fields. If I could be 50% as articulate as Winchester, I would be satisfied!