When editors at The New York Times Magazine were designing millennial issues and wanted a viable answer to the query, they wisely turned to Witold Rybczynski -- renowned social and architectural historian, author of Home and The Most Beautiful House in the World, a man who built a house by hand. Rybczynski's quest to identify the tool that changed the course of civilization became a story of mechanical discovery and genius as illuminating and engaging as Dava Sobel's Longitude. One Good Turn tells the tale of the screwdriver and the screw. Leonardo da Vinci sketched a machine for carving wood screws and the rest is delightfully compelling history. Rybczynski demonstrates exactly how, without screws, there would be no telescope, no microscope -- in short, no enlightenment science -- and why the Industrial Revolution would still be waiting in the wings. The screwdriver, perhaps the last hand-tool in a world gone cyber, represents nothing less than the triumph of precision and mass production. "Savvy and highly readable", (San Francisco Chronicle) Witold Rybczynski renders an uncommonly incisive and lively portrait of human endeavor.
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.