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Chatting Up A Storm - Claudia Cragg


Apr 25, 2018

Claudia Cragg (@KGNUClaudia) speaks here with author Simon Winchester (@simonwwriter) about his latest book, The Perfectionists. 

In this, he 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, Winchester says, 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, phone, computer, bicycle, 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. this book 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 twentieth 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.

Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic. 

In 1969, Winchester joined The Guardian, first as regional correspondent based in Newcastle upon Tyne, but was later assigned to be the Northern Ireland Correspondent. Winchester's time in Northern Ireland placed him around several events of The Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Belfast Hour of Terror.

After leaving Northern Ireland in 1972, Winchester was briefly assigned to Calcutta before becoming The Guardian's American correspondent in Washington, D.C., where Winchester covered news ranging from the end of Richard Nixon's administration to the start of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In 1982, while working as the Chief Foreign Feature Writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location for the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Tierra del Fuego for three months.

Winchester's first book, In Holy Terror, was published by Faber and Faber in 1975. The book drew heavily on his first-hand experiences during the turmoils in Ulster. In 1976, Winchester published his second book, American Heartbeat, which dealt with his personal travels through the American heartland. Winchester's third book, Prison Diary, was a recounting of his imprisonment at Tierra del Fuego during the Falklands War and, as noted by Dr Jules Smith, is responsible for his rise to prominence in the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Winchester produced several travel books, most of which dealt with Asian and Pacific locations including Korea, Hong Kong, and the Yangtze River.

Winchester's first truly successful book was The Professor and the Madman (1998), published by Penguin UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the book was a New York Times Best Seller, and Mel Gibson optioned the rights to a film version, likely to be directed by John Boorman.

Though Winchester still writes travel books, he has repeated the narrative non-fiction form he used in The Professor and the Madman several times, many of which ended in books placed on best sellers lists. His 2001 book, The Map that Changed the World, focused on geologist William Smith and was Winchester's second New York Times best seller. The year 2003 saw Winchester release another book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, as well as the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester followed Krakatoa's volcano with San Francisco's 1906 earthquake in A Crack in the Edge of the World. The Man Who Loved China (2008) retells the life of eccentric Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham, who helped to expose China to the western world. Before The Perfectionists, Winchester's most recent book was The Alice Behind Wonderland, released March 2011.