The Lowly Screw

From putting together bookcases to taking apart a laptop computer, there is one particularly low-tech tool that no one should be without: the screwdriver. In Witold Rybczynski‘s One Good Turn, we get an insightful, although sometimes dry, account of the history of the screwdriver and by extension, the screw.

Rybczynski’s book has its genesis in a request from The New York Times editors for an article about “the best tool of the millennium.” The editors didn’t want an essay on something merely useful. They wanted something that was literally, a tool. But like any other normal person, the author was at first hesitant. How interesting is a tool to the average person? A screwdriver is a screwdriver. To us, it seems patently obvious to its use. But as Rybczynski began his search for this tool’s origin, he found that this wasn’t so. Many tools have already been invented by ancient times. The screwdriver, on the other hand, appeared in the layman’s toolbox no earlier than the 19th century.

However, the 19th century toolbox revealed the screwdriver in its full modern form. How could it have suddenly appeared like that without anyone noticing? One way to dig deeper into the origins of this tool was to examine the presence of screws. Rybcyznski discovered, that like many tools, such as the cannon, the screw first appeared in the context of military technology–specifically medieval armor. It was only until after the use of screws in guns that people realized its wider applications.

The author posits that the concepts behind the screw originated from Archimedes who had worked out the mathematics behind the water screw–a device used in irrigation and pumping water out of mines. But screws, compared to nails, were difficult to make. Prior to the 18th century, they were all made by hand. Only when the lathe was perfected could the screws be made accurately and in quantity.

I admit, I would not recommend this book to just anybody. You’d either have to be mechanically oriented or just fascinated by gadgets and technological advancements in general to appreciate the evolution of something so simple as a screw. Or, I could put it this way. The audience for this kind of subject, no matter how well written, would resemble the demographics of a certain history of science class I took as an undergraduate where the prof was particularly fond of steam machines and clocks: male engineering majors and me.