One Good Turn: A Natural History Of The Screwdriver And The Screw. – Review – book review
ONE GOOD TURN: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SCREWDRIVER AND THE SCREW Witold Rybczynski Scribner, $22.
WHEN WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI WAS ASKED to pen a magazine piece about the best tool of the past millennium, he was stumped. The hammer, auger, saw, drill, and plumb line all turned out to predate the last 1,000 years. More recent innovations, such as power tools, amount to mere laborsaving, incremental improvements. Rybczynski’s wife, Shirley, finally came up with a viable candidate: “You always need a screwdriver for something,” she told her husband.
In this trim volume, architect and historian Rybczynski engagingly recounts his quest into the origins of the screwdriver and its necessary adjunct, the screw. Indeed, the screw steals the show. The concept of this helical wonder has been with us in some form since the early Greeks, and Rybczynski assiduously tracks its development and use in machinery, armor, and weaponry. By the time he espies perhaps the earliest depiction of a screwdriver –in a medieval rendering of a screw-cutting lathe–it’s a bit of an anticlimax.
But the screw’s history engrosses right down to its daunting manufacture. As Rybczynski relates, 16th-century screw-making was a cottage industry. The threads, filed by hand, were imperfect and shallow, and screws were so expensive that they were sold individually. In the 18th century, industrialization brought consumers mass-produced screws at cheaper prices, but they still had one drawback: The machinery of the day couldn’t file a screw to a point. Workers had to drill a hole into material to get the blunt screw-end started. The familiar machine-made, pointed self-starting screw didn’t appear until the mid-19th century.
One of Rybczynski’s most absorbing tales is of how the Phillips screwdriver–the one with the cross-slotted head–enabled its corresponding counterpart to beat out the Robertson screw, making the Phillips the world’s standard. The Robertson, with an incised square socket on its head, fastens faster and tighter than the Phillips. But car manufacturers preferred the Phillips precisely because of its less-snug fit: The automated screw-drivers on the factory line popped out of the screw’s recesses more easily, thus preventing over-torquing.
By telling the tale of the screw, Rybczynski has done one good turn of his own.
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