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Hagerty Employee

Leno: Precision machining built the world as we know it

I’m not trying to start a book club or anything, but I stumbled on a summer read that I just couldn’t put down. Before I say what it is, I should mention that one of my heroes is Henry M. Leland, the founder of Cadillac and Lincoln. Before Leland got into the car business, he ran a machining business that made components for sewing machines and guns. He was one of the first pioneers of standardized, interchangeable parts, which requires the ability to measure and machine things down to fractions of an inch and to do it repeatedly and reliably.


The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World is the story of how people developed that ability. Because if you’ve ever wondered how we went from chiseling rocks to making microchip transistors that are 13.5-billionths of a meter wide, then author Simon Winchester has a tale for you.


Read the full article on


Intermediate Driver

I was really hoping for at least a passing reference to Carl Edvard Johansson. Gauge blocks, or "Jo blocks", are critical to precision machining. At least, if you want your precision parts to interchange with parts made on a different machine...

Intermediate Driver

Thanks for reminding us that nothing happens without math, science, engineering and industry. All fueled by money.

Pit Crew

I'm reading a second time because it was so good!

Intermediate Driver

I was waiting for the mention of the Springfield Armory, its precision machining cottage industries, and how that lead to Springfield, MA being chosen as the only place outside of England to assemble Rolls Royces.


Why is this book out of print already in physical form?

Intermediate Driver

Simon Winchester is a great writer on historical technology and the history of science. As a geologist, I would also recommend his book: "The Map That Changed The World". This is the narrative of how William Smith, a British surveyor who engineered the building of canals in the early 1800's, realized that geological formations could be mapped on a continental scale and that they represented a succession of geological time. Obvious today, but a mind-blowing concept at the time. William Smith is considered the "Father of Geology" and he had discovered the science of Stratigraphy as we now call it. How is this related to automobiles?? Well, Stratigraphy is the primary, basic tool of petroleum exploration.

New Driver

Interchangeable parts are what drove the adoption of the English inch and the Metric System throughout the world.  In order for parts to be interchangeable, the units they are designed in have to be the same everywhere.  Thus the Convention of the Meter and the Convention of the Yard and the Pound.  Everywhere you go the inch is 25.4 millimeters and the millimeters are the same.  Or we could say that the millimeter is 5/127 inch and the inches are the same.  Which is why NATO called .50 caliber M2 machine guns 12.7 millimeter.  Without such standardization, we cannot have machine guns at all!  Or 1966 Pontiac Lemanses.

Intermediate Driver

Thanks, Jay. Just grabbed a copy from my local public library!


not sure from the intro/verbiage if this is Jay, but frm just a lill westa U  (Pioneer Valley, W.MA, CT & VT) we hada great revolution (water wheel, beginning of the industrial rev, tool'n die, or tool cutting industry.) Frm Spfld, VT to Hartford, CT for 2, 300 yrs we had the world by the  xxx (in that regard). Aero space engineering late 60s. Then the (ur wrds) the "bean counters", the MBAs, stock mrkt guys desimasted the industry. Arbitrage, 1/4ly stock reports, no mater the viability of the co, no matter the long term survival and profitability - just the nxt 3 mo profits' all that matters...

I'm 68 y/o, a late comer to this as a machinists (during college - 3 - 11 Greenfield Tap'n Die; 9 - 3 class) but there wuz lota healthy competition. "Millers Falls" v Gfld T&D v Starret etc. The management would come dwn onto the fl, ask us "Whadda ya guys got now?" "Hey boss, ya know what? I think we can beat MF. I got some ideas. How bout we try xxx?" and we wrked together. No longer (lookat autowrkers/teamsters). Then late 70s (frm mid), they did not care. Pressure frm above? who knows. The lay offs started. The **bleep** ('n a few German) machines came in - numerical controlled (CNC) Mitsubishi etc. It was over (300 yrs of usa dominance).  

Ck the european answ. Started when we hada challenge (heck the whole world did) at the Great Depression, a 90 yr experiment we could emulate:

but thats'all a step above - the coordination of it all...




New Driver

There was a program on this same subject, that covered different things from the start to where we are today. It was called Connections, and was hosted by James Burke. I believe it was a BBC series. Very interesting, I had to tape it on VHS cassette to watch it, as I worked nights.


Great article,  Jay. I really enjoyed reading it. It got me to thinking. You are so right.


Thanks for recommending the book, Jay. I picked up a copy and it's wonderful. My Dad was a Tool and Die Maker, and I grew up in a machine shop. I've always been fascinated by "How We Got Here", and this book is a treat!


- Jim