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Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
In 1947, a transistor was the size of a small child’s hand. In 1971, twenty-four years later, the transistors in a microprocessor were just ten microns wide, a tenth of the diameter of a human hair.
The most proprietary and commercially sensitive aspect of the blades, aside from the complex geometry of the hundreds of tiny pinholes, is the fact that the blades are grown from, incredibly, a single crystal of metallic nickel alloy.
It was a firm of venture capitalists named that took the gamble… Lancelot Law Whyte, who confessed to “falling in love at first sight” with the young officer… later told his wife that the experience of first meeting Whittle… was akin to “meeting a saint in an earlier religious epoch.”
Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World1 is a surprising treasure. Its author Simon Winchester writes and reads it as a kind of Geppetto, talking you through his love for humanity’s mechanical children. But here Geppetto is very British, and his child is the modern science of precision and the profound ways it is wielded by man to understand and tame the universe. And just like the animating force of Pinocchio is a delightful magic, so are the modern miracles of technology indistinguishable from the most fantastic sorcery.
For a British analogy, Winchester is a kind of David Attenborough of the engineering world. Reading the audiobook himself, he shares the same gentle British tone of old-worldliness and authority, unveiling the story of man’s machine world just for you.
Initially, the story of precision and mechanisation is indistinguishable from an ode to Britain. We are acquainted with leading figures of the Industrial Revolution, the minds behind the steam engine, the standardised screw, locks and pulleys and more, that preceded and then fed the British Empire’s zenith and allowed her shipyards to support the navy that once ruled the world. Even after her zenith, Britain birthed the jet engine (arguably jointly with Germany2). (Exactly makes for a wonderful companion to James Dyson’s memoir Invention: A Life, Dyson being a British descendent of this British tradition of tinkering and invention.) Some time in the early 20th century (and in some respects much earlier) the Americans pick up the baton in manufacturing and technology. Where the Rolls-Royce was the epitome of precision manufacturing no expenses spared, Henry Ford brought the assembly line and mass manufacturing to the world. And where it was a plucky general who first proposed and demonstrated the power of interchangeable components in a French dungeon,3 the French Revolution put a halt to that. But it was Thomas Jefferson, witness to the experiment, who brought it to the New World and to the gun manufacturers of New England. And it is the Hubble telescope — that American fountain of knowledge — whose first $2bn iteration was ruined by a lens manufacturer who was out by a mere 1/50th of a human hair. Winchester ends his book in Japan, the Mecca of precision engineering, in a charming meditation on the Japanese blend of venerable human craftsmanship and the power of humanless manufacturing.
Earlier inventions like the screw and the steam engine are comprehensible to the reader. A reader might appreciate their ingenuity and find satisfaction in their cleverness. But with the jet engine, one truly feels like we have entered an incomprehensible land of magic.
All who see such a jet engine turbine blade, and who know something of its manufacture, see in its making the most sublime of engineering poetry… The most proprietary and commercially sensitive aspect of the blades, aside from the complex geometry of the hundreds of tiny pinholes, is the fact that the blades are grown from, incredibly, a single crystal of metallic nickel alloy. This makes them extremely strong—which they need to be, as in their high-temperature whirlings, they are subjected to centrifugal forces equivalent to the weight of a double-decker London bus, of around eighteen tons.
Very basically, the molten metal (an alloy of nickel, aluminum, chromium, tantalum, titanium, and five other rare-earth elements that Rolls-Royce coyly refuses to discuss) is poured into a mold that has at its base a little and curiously three-turned twisted tube, which resembles nothing more than the tail of P. G. Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings, the fictional Lord Emsworth’s prize pig. This “pigtail” is attached to a plate that is cooled with water, and the whole arrangement, once it is filled with liquid metal, is slowly withdrawn from the furnace, allowing the metal, equally slowly, to solidify.
This it does, first, at the cool end of the pigtail, but because the mold here is so twisted, only the fastest-growing crystals and those with their molecules distributed with what is called a face-centered cubic arrangement, for complex reasons known only to students of the arcana of metallurgy, manage to get through. And through this magic of metallurgy, the entire blade then assembles itself from the one crystal that makes it along the pigtail, and ends up with all its molecules lined up evenly. It has become, in other words, a single crystal of metal, and thus, its eventual resistance to all the physical problems that normally plague metal pieces like this is mightily enhanced.
Alchemists weren’t nearly ambitious enough! They merely sought to turn lead into gold, never to grow uber-strong mechanical components whole.
The story of the jet engine is not only one of persistence by a brilliant mind against skepticism — not atypical for this kind of story — but also of venture capital enthrallment. Namely, venture capitalist called Lancelot (why aren’t VCs everywhere heralding this story?):
It was a firm of venture capitalists named O. T. Falk and Partners that eventually, in 1935, took the gamble. “Stratosphere plane?” was the note taken on September 11 of that year by the firm’s senior partner, Lancelot Law Whyte, who confessed to “falling in love at first sight” with the young officer. Despite the query of his notation, he later told his wife that the experience of first meeting Whittle… was akin to “meeting a saint in an earlier religious epoch.” Had one not known the end of the story, it might be easy to suppose that, with a beginning like this, all would inevitably end in tears. Far from it. It ends triumphantly, with the saint indeed performing all the miracles expected of him. And Lancelot Law Whyte emerges from the story as a visionary, a man undeservingly forgotten. He had once been a physicist; he was anything but a coldhearted banker, but was an almost mystical figure, who loved Whittle’s idea not because it might make money, but because of its sheer elegance, and because “every great advance replaces traditional complexities by a new simplicity. Here it was in the iron world of engineering.”
If the sorcery of crystalline jet-engine metallurgy makes your hair tingle, we are still in the first half of the twentieth century. In the twenty first century the engineering catches up to the physics of the early twentieth, as engineering approaches the atomic, and the author must dedicate a chapter on time itself. Transistors become so small that they can be printed alongside other components photographically:
…now that planar transistors were about to become a reality, might it not be possible to put flattened versions of the other components of a full-fledged electrical circuit (resistors, capacitors, oscillators, diodes, and the like) onto the same silicon oxide covering of a silicon wafer? Could not the circuitry, in other words, be integrated?
If it could, and if every component were now tiny and, most important, virtually flat, then could the circuits not be printed onto the silicon wafer photographically?
In 1947, a transistor was the size of a small child’s hand. In 1971, twenty-four years later, the transistors in a microprocessor were just ten microns wide, a tenth of the diameter of a human hair. Hand to hair. Minute had now become minuscule. A profound change was settling on the world.
With the latest photolithographic equipment at hand, we are able to make chips today that contain multitudes: seven billion transistors on one circuit, a hundred million transistors corralled within one square millimeter of chip space.
If photo-printing transistors and integrated circuits are a little too passé and outdated for you, can I offer you atomic transistor printing via molten tin?
The new machines no longer employ visible-light lasers, but what is known as extreme ultraviolet (EUV) radiation, and at a specific wavelength of 13.5 billionths of a meter. This would enable, in theory, the making of transistors down to atomic scale, to edge-of-the-seat, leading-edge, bleeding-edge ultrasubmicroscopic precision, while maintaining some kind of commercial edge, too.
Dealing with EUV radiation is far from easy. It is radiation that travels only in a vacuum. It cannot be focused by lenses, and it won’t work with mirrors as mirrors are generally known, but only through costly, many-layered devices known as Bragg reflectors. Moreover, EUV radiation is best produced from a plasma, a high-temperature gaseous form of molten metal that can best be procured by firing a conventional high-powered laser at a suitable metal.
Extremely pure metallic tin is heated until it becomes molten, and the hot liquid is then squirted out into a vacuum chamber in a tiny jet stream that looks continuous but is in fact composed of fifty thousand droplets moving past each second. The droplets themselves are then hit with light from a first laser, which pancakes each one, making a larger surface area for a second and very powerful carbon dioxide laser to irradiate each flat droplet—each of which turns instantly into a superheated plasma that emits a second jet stream of the wanted extreme ultraviolet radiation. (The bombarded droplets also produce fragments of waste tin, which might solidify were it not for a conveniently sited jet of hydrogen gas that casually brushes them out of the way.)
The EUV radiation that is born in this Hadean environment is then passed through the intricate masks on which the transistor arrays are drawn, that is, the new and ultra-tiny integrated circuit, after which it is moved down a staircase pathway of Bragg reflectors, each made to formidable optical precision, and onto the silicon wafer itself, to begin its work at mechanical tolerances of as little as seven-, maybe even five-billionths of a meter.
I can read these words but I’m not sure I will ever understand exactly what they mean. And that was of 2018. Who knows what they’re up to now. I can’t help but imagine the first combinations of tin and copper into alloy — bronze — that defined an entire age some 5,000 years ago.4 That itself must have seemed magical, a potion of metals to forge new weapons and tools. Now we squirt molten tin to shape and harvest its imperceptible droplets.
If you do not bask in the glory of such creation, if your mind does not boggle at how we walk around with these miracles in our pockets every day, I don’t know what else to tell you. Prometheus was punished for granting life to man, but the ancients never dreamed we’d be flying or tele-communicating like we do today. And not just kings or priests, but even the most modest among us.
The book would make a fantastic mini-series, each story touchingly human and exhilarating in its technological leap. Even when the stories are known and have become almost mundane — the miracle of the transistor and the unfathomable power of Moore’s Law — Winchester renders these subjects in delightful clarity to the lay reader, charmingly weaving the stories of the inventions with their inventors.5
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No relation to the excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004) by Jack Weatherford.
Frank Whittle voluntarily shared his most valuable prize with Hans von Ohain, the German inventor whose Heinkel-powered plane had been the true first to fly with a turbojet engine.
French gunsmiths were none too pleased about the mass manufacturing of guns as it degraded the value of their craftsmanship.
Such was the hostility in France to Honoré Blanc, in fact, that the government had to offer him protection, and so sequestered him and his small but faithful crew of precision gun makers in the basement dungeons of the great Château de Vincennes
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David Anthony provides a good overview of the tremendous value of tin in the Bronze Age. The book also bears no relation to Genghis Khan or Exactly, all three purporting to shape, make or create the modern world.
There seems to be a very particularly boy-ish combination of optics and sex. In American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer’s brother discovered sperm by observing his own under the microscope. Winchester shares a similar anecdote about the peers of his youth (he vehemently denies any such compunction for himself):
Some adolescent members of the school microscope club claimed to have seen their own spermatozoa, which struck me back then as both doubtful and disgusting