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One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  458 Ratings  ·  79 Reviews
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 pla ...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published August 28th 2001 by Scribner (first published March 28th 2000)
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ccccurt Heimbuck
Dec 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
If a book has "natural history" in the title, I'm going to love it.

I found this book at Goodwill, and it's exactly the type of book I'm looking for when I go on my book hunts--specific but while saying something about the entirety of human knowledge, quirky, and something that will lead me to lots of other books.
Jul 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Chapter Six, Mechanical Bent, felt like a shift. Earlier chapters chronicled the natural progress of the authors research. The subsequent, final chapter (7), recapitulates the evolution of the screw and screw driver as twin inventions with

My geometric take-away or reminder: a spiral is flat (2D) whereas a helix is not flat (3D).

It must have been a decision by the publisher to include some illustrations, relegate others to an appendix, and (I think) skip some more. I enjoyed the illustrations an
Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very good book. Takes a bit to really hit its stride but if you know very much about any of a number of historical eras it will connect some seemingly not related dots. I especially found the chapter on the screw interesting. Reminded me a bit of the old Connection series by James Burke.
May 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
An entire book about a screwdriver works because Witold Rybczynski is such a great writer.
Dec 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: trivia buffs and handymen (and women) alike
Originally posted on my blog, Guiltless Reading

You always need a screwdriver for something!

The book in one sentence: Let me take you on a quest to find out why the screwdriver is the best tool of the millennium.

My thoughts: I won One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski at a Christmas party (with some other goodies) and being the "read-anything" type of gal, I jumped into this one quite easily. This is so short (only a 143 pages) that I read it in tw
Julie H.
Mar 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
If you've ever hung a door, planed wood, built a Morris chair that was custom-fit to a family member's dimensions--or even fantasized about doing so--this book is for you. Likewise, if you're an archaeologist well-versed in such riveting details (sorry) as the history of such ubiquitous and oft-encountered items as nails, then this, too, is the book for you. Why? Because it demonstrates how to write thoroughly, intelligently, and with passion about even the most quotidian of items: in this case, ...more
Mary Catelli
Aug 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For a rather modern tool, it takes a good amount of hunting to track down the history and origin of the screwdriver.

It opens with an account of his being asked to do an article on the tool of the millennium. This is somewhat complicated by his hunt through his wood-working tools to find those that aren't millennia old. To be sure, there are some. Like the brace.

And as he finally realizes, the screwdriver, which indeed seems to be 18th century.

It takes some hunting. A French reference, older than
Sep 25, 2015 rated it liked it
This book has evoked an odd response in me, one that I am not fully able to characterize. I *should* like this book more than I do, but overall, it leaves me somewhat flat. It is not the writing as such, I wish more popular authors sought this level of prose style as opposed to a more glib and pop-pandering style which is all too common.

Oddly, I suppose it is in large part the book's brevity. Usually I think authors are too prolix, but here I think Rybczynski is going too fast and failing to ta
Dec 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book appeals to me in a number of ways. The first appealing aspect was the author. Rybczynski's style and reputation would make me inclined to read works of his on any number of subjects. I first encountered his writing as part of the architecture curriculum at UL, so I went in to his works expecting to be impressed. If those guys give it a stamp of approval, it must be exceptional.

The subject was, in fact, the next most appealing part of the book. As Rybczynski points out, the screw is a
Sep 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
I have picked up and put down this book several times before, but read it through quickly. It is FASCINATING (though you may not think the screwdriver and screw could be so) and absolutely delightful for the thinking and research process described. Though I've read other books by Rybczynski, I didn't appreciate what an excellent researcher he (and let's be honest, the team of researchers noted in the back of the book) is. Many of the paths Rybczynski follows begin with close examination of the t ...more
Joanie Sompayrac
Nov 18, 2016 rated it it was ok
About 15 years ago, micro-histories were the rage. I don't remember how many various books I purchased on the history of the pencil, spices, chocolate, numbers, etc. This book was one of those many purchases. For some reason, I never read it. So, I read it this week. I don't know why I thought I would be interested in this -- a history of some tools. I don't really even use tools except in extreme emergencies, and even then, I usually misuse tools. Anyway, the author assumes a level of knowledge ...more
Aug 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: technology, history
I learned of Rybczynski from Nick Offerman's Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers and have been meaning to read his stuff since then. This is one of those books where the title and subtitle will tell you right away if you will enjoy it or not. If you aren't immediately repulsed by it, you'll probably like it.

For me, I dug it. A good half of this short book is basically describing the discovery and research process he undertook for the subject, which i
Firat Tarman
Günümüzde kullanılan pek çok el aletinin kökeni eski çağlara kadar uzanmaktadır. Yakın zamanlarda keşfedilen önemli bir el aleti bulmak için yola çıkan yazarın vardığı nokta vida ve tornavida olmuş.

Pek çok buluş için yazılmış çok çeşitli kitaplar bulabilirsiniz. Ancak vida ve tornavidanın tarihi üzerine yazılmış başka bir kitap var mıdır bilemiyorum, varsa da ben görmedim.


Vida ve tornavida gibi pek de önemsemediğimiz alet edevat hakkında 161 sayfalık bir kitap çıkması enteresan. İlgi du
James Williams
There's not a whole lot to say about this book. It's pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: A popular history of the screwdriver and (somewhat necessarily) the screw.

Unfortunately, as important as the screw is to our modern civilization, there's not been a lot of academic work around it. So the majority of the book's prose is the author's descriptions of his visiting museums and libraries to try to find out as much as he can about the the history of this little marvel of the simple machin
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
Jun 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: tech-minded medievalists, historically-inclined Neal Stephenson fans
I was all set to give this four stars but then it ended kind of unexpectedly, without really wrapping everything up. (Also there is a typo in at least one of the references — Dumas instead of Daumas — that made it hard to track down.) It's still a really excellent book for people interested in the history of tools and technology.

I forgot to mention — there are several pages at the beginning where he muses over which tool he should pick to write about for a magazine article (said article having b
Jul 20, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a short and well written book on the history of the screwdriver. I always enjoy reading books like this because I teach in a business school and am constantly on the lookout for interesting stories and examples to share with students. At the time I read this, I was teaching at Purdue and many of my students were former or current engineers, who sometimes do not believe there is much to learn about such a common tool as a screwdriver. But there is, including an entire history of the Frenc ...more
Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this charming and quirky little book. I especially trust the author's knowledge. The investigation is academic but not pedantic or aloof (as can often be the case with the professoriate). The author's knowledge is intimate and rings as authentic, from experience. Witness, his description of the PL Robertson contribution to the screw and screwdriver (I won't spoil it for other readers). Suffice to say that my experience has been that posers and wannabees, especially American, will often n ...more
Jul 17, 2015 rated it liked it
I liked parts of the book - especially the chapters about the development of the thread cutting technology. It was also very interesting to read about the history of two of the 'next generation' head types, the Robertson and Phillips heads.
However, I felt that the story ended a little abruptly with these two screw types. Lots of other head types have been developed and gained widespread use since the two mentioned screws were developed. What about the Torx and Allen head types, e.g.? The story
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jun 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, 2011
Ryczynski had simple assignment: write a history of the most important tool of the last millennium. But as with all simple assignments, it turned out to be far more complicated than expected. Most hand tools are ancient in origin, and power tools too specialized to count as ‘the most important tool’. But every household has a drawer full of screwdrivers, and nobody seems to know where they come from. “One Good Turn” is a quick and easy history. Not particularly deep, but fun and very readable.
Mar 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Not my usual reading, but this short (and often wandering) history of "the greatest tool of the millenium" grabbed me and sucked me into musings about lathes, knights, and the industrial revolution. Rybczynski is one of my favorite authors, but this was an unusual project for him.

While the screwdriver was the first tool I grabbed when leaing home, I hadn't considered how useful it is--nor how modern. An engaging read and a nice gift book.
Garrett Burnett
Jan 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
It's a book about the history of the screwdriver. Really it's an extra long feature article in book form. The author, a guy with a truly unpronounceable name, takes you on his exploratory journey of unearthing the most important tool invented in the last thousand years. As he makes his case for the screw and screwdriver, he introduces a lot of great tool history and trivia. My favorite part was his discussion of the button hole, one of those very-useful but not-so-intuitive inventions.
Jan 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Andrew James, Michael Black
Shelves: craft
Delightful, entertaining little book for anyone interested in craft or mechanical engineering (even as an amateur). This is kind of like one of those extended New Yorker articles, but is much more down to earth. Rybczynski's enthusiasm for tools, invention, and utility is infectious. It is not a big or "important" book, but is nevertheless (perhaps all the more so) enjoyable. Am now mining the bibliographic notes for references on old tools and mechanisms.
Apr 27, 2012 rated it liked it
An interesting enough history of some of the tools we use all the time, but a little TOO specialist for me to appreciate fully I think. Still, a few neat insights into how they came about.

"Is not invention the poetry of science?" asked E.M. Bataille, a French pioneer of the steam engine. "All great discoveries carry with them the indelible mark of poetic thought. It is necessary to be a poet to create."
Craig Russell
Dec 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
One Good Turn – A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw
By Witold Rybczynski (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.)

Know someone who lacks historical perspective?

Buy this little gem of a book and throw it at them. Rybczynski has authored many excellent non-fiction books (The Perfect House is another personal favourite).

This one should be part of every high school history and science class. Brilliant.

Clear. Always interesting. He makes us all smarter.
Apr 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book (in print), but I had expected to love this book. The diagrams appear on first glance to be plentiful, but then he goes on to describe devices that aren't illustrated. A photo section would have greatly improved this book. And while I read a traditional print edition of a book this is the type of book that would be an amazing ebook with videos and .gifs of the tools described in action. I look forward to more of this author's work.
David Stanley
May 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
One of the marks of a great writer is that s/he can take a topic that is so mundane one rarely gives it a second thought and turns out a book that can't be put down. Witold never disappoints and One Good Turn is no exception. It is the story of the screw and screwdriver; that little gizmo that is about as everyday as a paper clip. Except it's not. If you are at all interested in "perfect things," you will be fascinated by One Good Turn.
Jul 13, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't particularly enjoy history, but I love reading the history of humble, useful everyday things, like the longitude, curry sausage, and in this case; the screwdriver and the screw (who cares about battles if you can learn how screws came about?).

After reading it, I feel this book can use a lot more illustrations. Some of the machinery described is just way too complicated for mental visualisation.
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
İsmine aldanmayın (zira sıkıcı bir ismi var), son derece eğlendirici ve daha önemlisi bol bol bilgilendirici bir kitap. Hele de evde, elde alet sağı solu onarmaya çalışan bir yapınız varsa, çantanızdan da İsviçre çakısını eksik etmeyen birisiyseniz, daha da seveceksiniz. Resmen bir "aletler tarihi".
Dec 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Rarely do I feel like I can't put down a non-fiction book. This unassuming history is full of interest and surprises. It works backward through the industrial revolution to the matchlock riffle to medieval armor and finally ends with the famous water screw of Archimedes. Loved every minute, a quick read.
Anna-elise Price
Apr 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
I've been a fan of this author for a long time, but hadn't gotten around to reading this one. It is good, though not as deeply interesting as Home, my favorite of his books. It is quite a quick read, and it takes you through a journey through just over a thousand years to consider how different the world might have been without the work of a few individuals.
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Witold Rybczynski was born in Edinburgh, of Polish parentage, raised in London, and attended Jesuit schools in England and Canada. He studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal, where he also taught for twenty years. He is currently the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also co-edits the Wharton Real Estate Review. Rybczynski has ...more
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