The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 November 2004

One Good Turn

A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

by Witold Rybczynski

Asked by a newspaper editor to provide an essay on the greatest tool of the second millennium, Rybczynski first thought of eyeglasses. Later, when convinced it had to be something in his toolbox, and after his wife recognized its ubiquity, the author settled on the lowly screwdriver and the screw. What unfolds in this short (just 143 pages) book, is the author's not terribly rigorous efforts to track the screwdriver back in time as far as he can find it. The search is relatively simple in outline, but requires access to some interesting historical documents that Rybczynski describes in entertaining detail. He also tells the stories of various characters throughout history, whose lives touch, at least a little, on the story of the screwdriver. The subject of the search is perhaps not as interesting as the search itself. But, the exploration of documents and obscure stories makes this book an easy-going intellectual adventure. At first, the author assumes the screwdriver goes way back, but he finds no record of it before about the 15th century. This and other surprises enliven his story. About a third of the way through, he might have had his newspaper essay. But he fleshes out the book with the story of the very concept of the screw, which brings in Archimedes and his contemporaries. Recommended.

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Also by Rybczynski: [A Clearing in the Distance] [City Life] [Home]

[Other History and Biography]