Review – One Good Turn

Witold Rybczynski  – One Good Turn — A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

Allegedly a history of a fastener, this book is more the history of an article written by the author for the New York Times on “the best tool of the millennium”.  A damn fine article I’m sure it was, but a slim premise for a book when you’ve already worked over the best information.

The first chapter recounts the selection process for the article, going through the author’s toolbox one tool at a time and explaining why each was discounted from the short list. In frustration he turns to his wife who, in digging through the bottom drawer in the kitchen (not the third drawer down, which by tradition, is the one always full of shit), discovers a screwdriver. Engaging the story might be but this is a slim volume and we are already 15% of the way through before the hero of the story. Rather than tell a simple account, the tale weaves wildly around a central theme, at times overshooting alarmingly. In some of the later chapters we yo-yo through time in the current narrative fashion, dealing with modern socket screw heads, Roman nuts and bolts, the industrial revolution and ancient Greek orreries.

Chapter two traces the author’s adventures trying to find the earliest documented example of the screwdriver (and wrestling with the language as the previous four centuries called it a turnscrew), which when finally found in 1475-90, not unsurprisingly looks just like a modern screwdriver.

We then travel via portable flour mills, musket locks, rotating book stands, jousting armour and Leonardo De Vinci to the development of the screw, then precision cut threads – and the chicken and egg discussion of whether the precision cut screw or the thread-cutting machine lathe to cut precision screws came first. The impact on machinery, and eventual effect on the industrial revolution at the hands of a collective noun of Brunells is postulated. Hero of Alexander and Vitruvius get a look in for their contribution to the threaded world and honourable mention is given to the Antikythera Mechanism for its differential gearing.

Some odd claims are made, often contrary to evidence presented in other parts of the book. For example, the butt hinge is claimed to post-date the introduction of the countersunk screw head in the early 1800s, but illustrations provided show butt hinges on armour attached with rivets dating from the 15th century. Obviously, he meant the modern usage of butt hinges on the edge of doors and chest lids relied on countersunk fasteners (but it never stopped my Grandfather using clenched 4″ nails – itself a medieval technique).

Interesting information is scattered through – the Robertson screw head (1907) and the Phillips screw head (1936) were locked in a Beta/VHS battle in the years leading up to the War. Guess who used Sony’s approach to licensing and who used JVC’s? There are some things we’re doomed to repeat. Medieval screws were used with nuts to hold metal together, not the more forgiving wood, so had to be made with more precision. Tapered wood screws weren’t really mass-produced until the start of the Industrial Revolution.

This is an excellent book, but more conversational than I’m used to in a work of non-fiction. Worth reading, as much for the insight on the flow of the author’s consciousness and process of writing as the subject itself.


One thought on “Review – One Good Turn

  1. And today, we have the battle of which precision screws are better – the ball precision screws or the normal ones 😉 If this is going to lead to war? I don’t know.

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