An evening with Simon Winchester – WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View 2019

Gang names on genitalia. Lessons on the history and uses of gunpowder that were heard by the Unabomber. The Gilmore Girls-esque ways of running a small town in New England, America 

Welcome to the wild, wacky, and wandering stories of Simon Winchester, who was recently in Christchurch to talk about his new book Exactly: How precision engineers created the modern world, as part of WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View. Normally a book like this - a book about the importance of precision engineering and the possible impact of a fault so small it is invisible to the human eye - would not be one that took my eye, but I know some of the author’s background, and I hoped that we would hear some tales of his past adventures in among any technical stories. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed!


The evening started with a talk about iPhones. Did you know that inside an iPhone there’s a chip the size of a little fingernail, and that tiny chip holds 4 BILLION transistors that allow that smartphone to do all the things that make it so smart? Or that there are more transistors in the world now than there are leaves on all the trees in the world?! How crazy is that? We really are living in a time where the technology couldn’t have even been dreamt of even a few decades ago.

We talked about locks – an unbreakable lock that took 51 hours to unpick back in the nineteenth century – and we heard about measuring. How long is a second? How do you know if a kilogram is a kilogram? We learnt new words, like ‘mallemaroking’ and we found out the secret to separating gauge blocks, that are so smooth they basically join together at a molecular level! We listened to stories about cars, and about the way Rolls Royce and Ford started producing cars around the same time, but had different attitudes towards car production - Rolls Royce produced approximately eight thousand cars, and chose to focus on quality of production, while Ford chose to go for quantity of cars produced, made approximately 16 MILLION Model Ts  Nearly a century later, more than half of those top quality Rolls Royce Silver Ghosts are still around. The same can’t be said for the Model Ts.

This was a wonderful evening, full of enjoyment, and I came away feeling several IQ points more intelligent. It was how you want to learn about history and science – through storytelling, anecdotes, laughter and fun. I’ve been a fan of Winchester’s since I read his book on the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, and now that I’ve seen and heard him in person I can’t wait to read more.


Photos of Simon Winchester at WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View 2019.

Simon Winchester

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WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

WORD Christchurch presents Shifting Points of View — a spectacular line-up of New Zealand and international speakers to warm you up and get you thinking. Shifting Points of View runs from Sunday 18 August to Saturday 14 September 2019. Visit our page on WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View for more information, previews, reviews, and WORD reading.