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One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw Hardcover – December 5, 2005

41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1999, an editor of the New York Times Magazine approached Witold Rybczynski, the well-known student of architecture and urban design, and asked him to write a short essay on the best and most useful common tool of the past millennium. Rybczynski took the assignment, but when he began to look into the history of the items in his workshop--hammers and saws, levels and planes--he found that almost all of them had pedigrees that extended well into antiquity. Nearly ready to admit defeat, he asked his wife for ideas. Her answer was inspired: "You always need a screwdriver for something."

True enough. And, Rybczynski discovered, the screwdriver is a relative newcomer in humankind's arsenal of gadgetry, an invention of the late European Middle Ages and the only major mechanical device that the Chinese did not independently invent. Leonardo da Vinci got to it early on, of course, as he did so many other things, designing a number of screw-cutting machines with interchangeable gears. Still, it took generations for the screw (and with it the screwdriver and lathe) to come into general use, and it was not until the modern era that such improvements as slotted and socket screws came into being.

Rybczynski's explorations into that lineage, here expanded to book length, are highly entertaining, and sure to engage readers interested in the origins of everyday things. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Acclaimed hardware, household and landscape writer Rybczynski invites readers to see how the world got screwedAand why it took so long, and how it felt. Romans had most of our hand tools, though cranks are medieval; screws and screwdrivers, however, originatedAwhen? 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-cutAboth 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 projectsAhis 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 fansAand those who care for the history of hardwareAwill want to stick their heads in his new book: many will find themselves fastened to its story. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 173 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Canada (December 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002000318
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002000314
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5.5 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,341,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance. His latest book is The Biography of a Building. The recipient of the National Building Museum's 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Read his blog at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Although I had no interest in screwdrivers and screws when I started this book, the text provided a pleasant reading experience and I learned more than I thought I would. All in all, it was well worth the time spent. I think you will feel that way too, unless you have no interest at all in mechanical devices and the process of innovation. My favorite parts related to the innovations.
This book is composed of equal parts (1) why the author chose the screwdriver as the tool of the millennium for his article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (2) where you have to go to find out about screwdrivers from the past (3) how he developed the information for this history of the screwdriver and screws and (4) the geniuses who developed the key advances in the technology of these useful devices. The style is a bit rambling, much like what would happen if you were chatting about the subject over a barbecue in the back yard with plenty of time on your hands. I can assure you this must be the most complete and authoritative book about screwdrivers and screws ever, especially since the author points out the virtual absence of any prior material turning up in his research.
Let me summarize the key areas. He picked the screwdriver as the tool of the millennium not because he thought of it, but because his wife told him that it was the one tool that she always kept around. After having gone through his own tool kit, he had not even thought of the screwdriver.
The first place where much shows up on the screwdriver in older texts is Diderot's Encyclopedia. In those days screwdrivers were called turnscrews.
To get a flavor of the screwdriver in the middle ages, when it seems to have appeared, you have to look into armor and early guns.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Walter J. Maslowski on September 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Let's get the main question out of the way: Can an entire book devoted to the history of the screw and screwdriver possibly be worth reading? The answer is an unqualified yes. This small book takes an unusual, almost reverential, look at the the nature of tools and the mind of the inventor and innovator. Rybczynski recounts his research into the origins of this ubiquitous tool, so it is also a tale of the research process. He tells the story in a casual, personal style, making it an easy read. The book is not tightly focused on its subject, filled with many digressions and asides which are as interesting as the main narrative. One of my favorites concerns the invention of the the shirt button. It seems like the epitome of simplicity, and could have been made thousands of years ago, yet it took until the 1300's for some unknown genius to make the "leap of imagination" and conceive of the device, which seems simple but is not at all intuitive. The author asks the reader to imagine trying to explain the the "twist and flip" motion to some one who has never used one. Its nuggets like this, which make the reader look at common items from an entirely different perspective, that makes the book shine. It turns out that one of the first uses of the screw dates back to the Middle Ages, as a method of fastening the the brutally abused armor of jousting knights, and later to secure the matchlock mechanisms of the earliest firearms. However, in exploring the concept of the helix, the basis of the screw, the author reaches much further back in time, to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, who understood the shape and put it to use in irrigation and wine presses.Read more ›
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Gerald B. Keane on December 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book is made up of about 10 pages of the history of the screw/screwdriver, 15 pages of the author's frustrating research (his frustration, not the reader's), and 120 pages of filler. Much of the filler is interesting but Rybczynski struggled hard, and wandered far, to find enough words to fill this very slim book (probably only 20,000 words). Since less than 10% is about the subject, the substance isn't quite enough for a solid magazine article. I wanted, and expected, more. I'm sure Rybczynski's editor did, too. Given the author's academic profession, I would think the book was the product of the "Publish or perish" syndrome were it not for his considerable resume of published books. I suspect that Professor Rybczynski, were he to read this review, might acknowledge that he was caught.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By audrey pierce TOP 500 REVIEWER on November 30, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A New York Times editor asked Mr. Rybczynski to write an article about his choice for best tool of the millennium. One would think that this would involve deciding on a tool, researching its history and uses, and writing it up. But that would be too linear. Instead, the author takes us on a rambling walk through the toolbox. We learn not only about the development of many tools and machines (adze, augur, hammer, lathe, gears and presses), but about the scientists and inventors, even financiers, who contributed to the development of the screwdriver, and the applications (early firearms and clocks) that helped (literally) shape the device. We learn about the Phillips versus the Robertson screw, and the limitations of earlier lathes, which led to the first screws being handmade. Many interesting facts like this entertain and inform.
As a librarian I appreciated the author's friendly discussion of the references he found useful for his research. There are many black-and-white line drawings to help you visualize the items being discussed, as well as a notes section, a good index, and illustration credits.
Weaknesses: I would have liked to have read a brief discussion of the (seven?) Simple Machines, as I think many were discussed here, and it would have been an interesting reminder of things from physics class that I've forgotten. In addition, I looked up a quote by Plutarch in the Notes section, and the citation began "Quoted by E. J. Dijksterhuis .... " with no information about the actual source -- not much help!
This was a fun read. If you are the kind of person who enjoys browsing through the dictionary or a bookstore, you will probably enjoy this little gem of a volume by this handyman-storyteller.
Highly recommended.
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