Do you remember the movie Independence Day? I’m thinking of the part when our heroes fly to Area 51 (where it turns out the US government does have a crashed alien spaceship) and the chief scientist, with his hair in wild disarray says, “They don’t let us out very often”?

On a completely unrelated topic, I have a friend who is on a mission to create an optical computer using only those technologies available prior to, and including, 1900 (he’s well on his way—in addition to all the fundamental logic gates and registers, he’s already got a system clock up and running).

I have another friend who has set himself the goal of documenting how to start with nothing and work your way up to having a full metal-working machine shop (lathes, mills, drills, grinders, etc.). As he explains at length to anyone who fails to get out of the way fast enough, the key starting point is to construct a perfectly flat table (which isn’t as easy as you might think). Once you have your table, one of the tools you would need to create along the way to a full-up shop (after passing through simpler items like files and hammers and suchlike) would be a micrometer.

I have friends who constantly sing the praises of their wireless computer mice and keyboards. Personally, I prefer to use “old-school” wired, USB-based devices. This is because, in my experience, the batteries in the wireless units never fail to take the opportunity to die just when you need them most (“Self-destruct sequence initiated. You have ten seconds to enter your 4-digit pin number to abort. 10… 9… 8… 7…”).

Just a few minutes ago, as I pen these words, while sitting in my home office, I picked up my digital micrometer to measure something. The battery had died. Rats! I really need to get a proper one that works without batteries (and I don’t mean solar-powered).

The reason I’m waffling on about all of this is that my chum Jay Dowling sent me a link to this video and this video of what may well be the world’s first micrometer.

This bodacious beauty lives in the London Science Museum, which is an awesome institution. Apart from anything else, it holds a reconstruction of one of Charles Babbage’s Differential Engines (I stood for ages in front of this oil-dripping delight gazing in captivated contemplation and awed admiration).

Apparently, this micrometer may or may not have been built by James Watt circa 1776. If so, it would predate any other end-measurement micrometer by 75 years, potentially making it the first one ever.

My ear was caught at time 2:43 in the second video when the narrator says, “When you look at it, it’s actually pretty badly made.” He goes on to say, “We know that James Watt wasn’t the best instrument maker.”

This made me think of the book The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester. This tome is well worth perusing and pondering. I recall one point when Simon notes that the gap between the piston and the cylinder in an early steam engine was often as wide as a penny coin of the time was thick.

In turn, this reminded me of some of my earlier cogitations and ruminations that, based on the sophistication of the Antikythera mechanism (which dates to anywhere between 100 and 200 BC – see also the reconstruction created by Chris at Clickspring), coupled with the Aeolipile (a.k.a. Hero’s engine—a simple blade-less radial steam turbine circa 30 to 20 BC), the Romans could have had rudimentary steam engines running in the first century AD. After using them to pump water (the Romans were big on water), the next step would have probably been steam-powered galley’s, and it wouldn’t have taken long after that before the Roman Legions would have been racing around the empire on railroads.

At this point, my poor old noggin really started to go into overdrive, but we’ll save any further meandering musings for another day. In the meantime, do you have any thoughts you’d care to share on any of this?