The Best Tool of the Millennium The seeds of Rybczynski's elegant and illuminating new book were sown by The New York Times, whose editors asked him to write an essay identifying "the best tool of the millennium." The award-winning author of Home, A Clearing in the Distance, and Now I Sit Me Down, Rybczynski once built a house using only hand tools. His intimate knowledge of the toolbox -- both its contents and its history -- serves him beautifully on his quest. One Good Turn is a story starring Archimedes, who invented the water screw and introduced the helix, and Leonardo, who sketched a machine for carving wood screws. It is a story of mechanical discovery and genius that takes readers from ancient Greece to car design in the age of American industry. Rybczynski writes an ode to the screw, without which there would be no telescope, no microscope -- in short, no enlightenment science. One of our finest cultural and architectural historians, Rybczynski renders a graceful, original, and engaging portrait of the tool that changed the course of civilization.
I was surpisingly drawn into it, considering its about tools, and I don't have much of a fit-it-up bone in my body. I'm more of the tear it down and look pleadingly at my boyfried to put it back together type.
The author starts by giving us a reason why he felt compelled to research the screw and screwdriver of all things. He then walks us through a good chunk of his research as he looks for the origins (which was suprisingly tricky). Finally, he walks us backwards through time through all the various stages and uses of the screw(driver). I would have prefered to start at the beginning and work our way to modern times, so it was a bit confusing for me jumping backwards but I can understand why he wrote that way.
An interesting book to keep mmy occupied for an afternoon...lovely sketches throughout as well.
Instead, we follow Rybczynski in his heuristic and trivia filled discovery of the history of the screw. He start with the OED whose earliest mention of the English term happens not to be actually the first one. Rybczynski finds earlier quotes (I wonder if the OED has corrected this in the mean time.). Switching to French, he discovers even earlier mentions of the tourne-vis. This seems to satisfy him, although I immediately thought about Renaissance Italy. Rybczynski eventually arrives there too, after a roundabout via German armor, firearms and Dürer etchings. Overall, there is good pictorial and text support for screws and screwdrivers around the middle of the 15th century. The inventor of the first screw will forever remain in the clouds.
Rybczynski also shows that the use of large-scale screws to in presses and water management was well established since Archimedes and even dating back to Babylon. Small screws were too laborious to make (as the grooves had to be manually filed) to be practical. Although this argument does not hold in case of buttons which were also invented only in the middle ages. Clasps and wooden joints seem to have fulfilled their needs. The screw's breakthrough only came with the widespread use of precision machines (firearms, clocks, ...). Rybczynski only glimpses at the Canadian, British and American screw pioneer inventors in a few pages. These lesser known mechanical genies deserved fuller treatments. A look at non-English inventors is missing too.
Overall, a quick, diverting read about an uncommon topic that leaves a curious reader stranded midway in an interesting story. Well, if you want an exhaustive treatment of the subject by Rybczynski, you're screwed.