One good turn : a natural history of the screwdriver and the screw

by Witold Rybczynski

Paperback, 2000




New York : Scribner, c2000.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member JBD1
Alright, but rambling and not all that interesting. Also, the end seems to come awfully abruptly ... But the topic is a worthy one, and if you like this sort of book, go for it.
LibraryThing member jasmyn9
I'm not quite sure where this book came from. I reached into a box while unpacking, looked down and though "Now why would I ever have this?" I still don't know, it's one of the few mystery books that have shown up over the years. It is a short book, less than 150 pages, with several well drawn diagrams and even a picture glossary of tools to refer to as you read.

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.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
It is hard to fill 140 pages with a history and evolution of screws and the screwdriver. The screw appears late in the Middle Ages but in nearly perfect form. The only changes are a switch to machine production during the industrial revolution and the variation at its point (pointed instead of flat) and head of a screw (Phillips instead of Robertson). One feels the text's origin as a magazin article. The result languishes between an expanded magazin article and a full book treatment. Rybczynski should have fleshed out the sketches of Archimedes and the pioneers of the screwdriver industry Jesse Ramsden, Henry Maudslay, Peter L. Robertson, Henry F. Phillips. Some numbers about the current world-wide production and use of screws might have been interesting. What is the quantitative relationship between nails and screws? What is the impact of the recent trend to glue things together on the screw industry?

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.
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LibraryThing member wester
This was a bit like being cornered by a uncle at a party. The kind of uncle that is charming and erudite but not very good at listening, so you have to hear all the details that you're not interested in as well as the good bits. The good bits are definitely there, but I'm not sure they're worth it.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Rybczynski, is a writer of some talent, and when asked to define "The Tool of the Millenium" he chose the variant of the inclined plane and it's application tool the screw and the screwdriver. When finally pushed to define the best screw he chose the Robertson pattern. It is also my favourite, but it does require a specialist screwdriver. Still I use a lot of them around the house, and you only need three drivers to cover all the different screw sizes. The book is surprisingly interesting and may be a good present for the technologist in your circle.… (more)
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Essay on the origins and development of the screw and hence the screwdriver. Wonderful details and an accidental case study on the unintentional consequence. Better screws led to better lathes which lead to factories long before the cotton factory.



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