cover image One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

Witold Rybczynski. Scribner Book Company, $22 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-684-86729-8

Acclaimed hardware, household and landscape writer Rybczynski invites readers to see how the world got screwed--and why it took so long, and how it felt. Romans had most of our hand tools, though cranks are medieval; screws and screwdrivers, however, originated--when? Scottish crafts manuals from around the time of the American Revolution give screwdrivers as ""turnscrews""; the same word in French, tournevis, turns up in 1723. Even earlier, screws appeared as a spinoff from Renaissance warfare, keeping the parts of a matchlock rifle linked. Used in timepieces and armaments, the screws of the 16th century were hand-cut--both expensive and unreliable. Efficient, widespread screwing required (a) more uses, to up the demand; (b) steam power, aka the Industrial Revolution; and (c) smart mechanics and engineers, who invented the manufacturing procedures that Rybczynski describes. Canada's Peter L. Robertson came up with the wondrous socket-head (square-holed) screw; the inferior Phillips (+-holed) head came later, but became standard outside Canada. Siege engines, early firearms like the arquebus, 19th-century child labor, the precision lathe, door hinges and the great minds of ancient Greek geometry also figure among the threads of Rybczynski's tightly wound exposition. A professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Rybczynski began this book after the New York Times asked him to pick the Tool of the Millennium. The short volume can feel like a bagatelle compared to Rybczynski's most ambitious projects--his biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, or the endeavor (chronicled in his Home) of building his own house plank by plank. Nevertheless, Rybczynski's many fans--and those who care for the history of hardware--will want to stick their heads in his new book: many will find themselves fastened to its story. (Sept.)