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

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The Best Tool of the Millennium
From a da Vinci sketch to a Phillips, this is the story of the partnership between the screw and the screwdriver, the people who perfected it, and the innovations that made it possible. The seeds of Witold Rybczynski's elegant and illuminating new book were sown by The New York Times, whose editors asked him to write an essay identifying "the best tool of the millennium". The award-winning author of Home: A Short History of an Idea and, most recently, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, Rybczynski once built a house using only hand tools. His intimate knowledge of the toolbox, both its contents and its history, serves him beautifully on his quest.
One Good Turn is a story starring Archimedes, who invented the water screw and introduced the helix, and Leonardo, who sketched a machine for carving wood screws. It is a story of mechanical discovery and genius that takes readers from Ancient Greece to Victorian Glasgow, from weapons design in the Italian Renaissance to car design in the age of American industry. Rybczynski writes an ode to the screw, without which there would be no telescope, no microscope, in short, no enlightenment science. The screwdriver, perhaps the last hand tool in a world gone cyber, represents nothing less than the triumph of precision. One of our finest cultural and architectural historians, Rybczynski renders a graceful, original, and engaging portrait of the tool that changed the course of civilization.

176 pages, Paperback

First published March 28, 2000

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About the author

Witold Rybczynski

56 books156 followers
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 designed and built houses as a registered architect, as well as doing practical experiments in low-cost housing, which took him to Mexico, Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and China.

(From www.witoldrybczynski.com)

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5 stars
140 (20%)
4 stars
275 (39%)
3 stars
227 (32%)
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44 (6%)
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13 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 106 reviews
Profile Image for Karin.
1,361 reviews10 followers
May 30, 2020
In this case, the title tells just about all that you need for a book blurb--this is the basics of what the book is about. That said, Rybcynski starts with how he first started too look into this topic, which was an assignment to write about the best tool invented in the last millennia (this book was published in 2011) and it had to be a tool to make things with. He decided it really should be a hand tool, since power tools are improvements. Lo and behold, the screwdriver (not the screw) was basically the only tool that wasn't already around, even though screws had been around since the days of Archimedes (he invented the first one as far as anyone can tell).

Along with a history of screwdrivers and screws, he looks into the development of things designed to make screws and some of their history as well, etc. Some of this book held my interest, but despite the solid writing, much of it was rather boring to me. I love the fact that I have screwdrivers at home and the benefits of screws over nails, but the history of it isn't one of the things I find fascinating.

Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
729 reviews179 followers
April 30, 2017

The book starts with Rybczynski relating how he was disappointed to be asked, in 2000, to write an article on the ``the best tool'' of the last millennium, then disappointed again when the asker wanted it to be about a tool-tool and not eyeglasses. Very begrudgingly, he goes over every woodworking tool he knows (which isn't many) but realises almost all of them are much older (though how old, he has no idea; he consistently credits the Romans for inventing everything from the try square to the hand plane, despite all being at least centuries older than Rome itself). Eventually his wife suggests the screwdriver, which he chagrinedly accepts.

The rest of the book is a laborious account of the research he did for the article with all the enthusiasm of a sullen teenager (because fuck synthesizing information—he hated writing this, so by gum, you're going to hate reading it), while constantly being distracted by things he would much rather be reading or writing about, like the arquebus† or the early history of machining.
Along the way it becomes clear he doesn't actually know how to do research, or even really know how screw fasteners work, be it in sheet metal (where he thinks they require a threaded hole) or in wood (where he thinks they're a mechanical bond, in contrast to nails' friction bond; in fact, the whole point of screws is that they increase friction compared to nails, and the only mechanical bond in this area is the one provided by clinched nails).

In the final chapter he finally suddenly discovers that screws are actually much older than he had assumed and were known to the Romans and the Greeks (as fasteners, not just as the Archimedes screw), but rather than rewrite anything in that light and maybe be forced to acknowledge the screwdriver wasn't actually invented in the last millennium, Rybczynski just types up some free association on the topic of Archimedes before ending the book abruptly, without any sort of conclusion.

A lot of garbage topical histories have been written in the last couple of decades, and failures of research tend to be the rule rather than the exception, but at least the authors most of the others have the decency not to complain about being forced to write them all through the book.
A solid, interesting history of the screwdriver can certainly be written. I guess it won't be now, though, since this exist.


† The name of which he thinks is from the Italian arcabugio (which he claims means ``hollow crossbow'', somehow) through the Spanish arcabuz. In reality, those words and the English all came from the Dutch hakebus (``hook tube''), through the French harquebuse.
Profile Image for William.
54 reviews3 followers
March 26, 2023
Overall, a good book that could have been a great book. Witold Rybczynski (what a name, eh?) is passionate about tools, and his passion gets you invested in tools, too, but the book just feels like a second draft. It needed some editing, way more diagrams, and a co-author who could translate some of the more dense technical explanation. It was more like a series of blog posts than a book.

Lots of interesting historical facts, though! And his thesis about the importance of the screw to human history is deeply researched and well argued. 2200 year old spoiler alert: it was most likely invented by Archimedes.

P.S. Holy crap Archimedes was cool! From the final chapter:

“Like Leonardo and Ramelli, Archimedes served as a military engineer. During the siege of Syracuse he was called on to build defensive weapons. He designed catapults that threw rocks weighing five hundred pounds, and complicated underwater obstacles that capsized ships. His most renowned weapon was a mirror that beamed the sun’s rays and set the attackers’ ships on fire. To prove the practicality of what had long been considered merely a colorful legend, in 1973, a Greek engineer named Ioannis Sakas built a working version of the ancient ray gun.11 He used seventy bronze-coated mirrors, which he aimed at a tarred plywood cutout of a ship. At a distance of 165 feet, approximating the 'bow-shot' that is mentioned in the classical text, it took only a few minutes for fire to break out.”

What!!! Like what!!!!
Profile Image for Coqueline.
67 reviews15 followers
July 16, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
502 reviews
May 16, 2017
An entire book about a screwdriver works because Witold Rybczynski is such a great writer.
Profile Image for guiltlessreader.
368 reviews117 followers
January 1, 2012
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 two sittings.

First thing, isn't that title rather cute? And doesn't the topic seem quite trivial? Really, who cares about the screwdriver? Which is precisely the point: how did it become such a permanent fixture in all our toolboxes? It really got me wondering ... so where did the screwdriver and screw originate? Was it the Chinese (like so many things?)

When Rybczynski is asked to write the history of the most important tool of the last millennium, he couldn't decide what that tool was. Until his wife simply said: "You always need a screwdriver for something." And that's the germ of this book.

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw feels like being on a scavenger hunt! Rybczynski gamely lets us all tag along as he turns detective - poring over old books, manuscripts and museums, and following up on little leads. He has such an air of excitement about him that I couldn't help but enjoy myself!

The history of the screwdriver and the screw is quite fascinating. My initial thought of the screw/screwdriver being invented by the Chinese was wrong - it is in fact the only major mechanical device that the Chinese did not independently invent!

Some cool bits of info, and this is just a smattering of what Rybczynski digs up:
- Archimedes had a water screw which was used for irrigation.
- Leonardo daVinci has sketches of a screw making machine!
- Screws were used in the 15th century to secure breastplates, backplates, and helmets on jousting armor.
- Screws were used widely in firearms, particularly the matchlock.
- Screws were individually made and extremely expensive to produce before the First Industrial Revolution. Job and William Wyatt developed a method of producing the screw in a machine that cut the slotted head first, then carved the helix.
- P.L. Robertson first commercialized the socket-head screw but was stingy with his patents. In stepped Henry Phillips with the cruciform screw which were widely used in the automotive industry. (Yes, you guessed it, these guys are the namesakes of the screw types and screwdrivers.)

The book is peppered with detailed drawings and has a full glossary of tools (and notes) in the back.

Verdict: I will never look at the screw and the screwdriver as ordinary again. Fascinating, fun, and a satisfying read, great for trivia buffs and handymen (and women) alike.
Profile Image for Jeff French.
116 reviews
November 8, 2020
I've enjoyed books about building things: Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine and House; David McCullough's The Great Bridge and Path Between the Seas; and so, turning to a smaller scale, I was drawn to Rybczynski's story of the screwdriver and the screw. He puts a lot of effort into ferreting out the earliest use of a screw as connector and the screwdriver to use with it; however, he also goes into great depth on other uses of the screw, other helix-shaped tools. Overall, the book is fascinating despite its conciseness; the writing is crisp; and the illustrations are informative. By the end, I was convinced by the author that the screwdriver is "the best tool of the millenium," the question that led to this book. I look forward to reading more of Rybczynski's books.
Profile Image for Elentarri.
1,494 reviews11 followers
September 20, 2015
A semi-detective story of tracking down the origin of the screwdriver and the screw. The book is well written and interesting, but has rather a lot of wood-working terms (i.e. names of tools) that I needed to look up.
Profile Image for Tim.
537 reviews
July 31, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Todd.
193 reviews7 followers
July 25, 2020
I generally like the books of Witold Rybczynski. “City Life” was a fascinating history of urban development; “Waiting for the Weekend” was a brisk look at how we created the modern workweek. Though I wasn’t as impressed by “Last Harvest” or “Home: The Short History of an Idea,” they were readable, thorough, and filled with interesting tidbits.

So when I picked up “One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw,” I thought, how bad could it be? I mean, it’s a slim work – 151 pages, including many illustrations – and though the screwdriver itself might seem like a better topic for Rybczynski’s ally in explanation, engineering professor Henry Petroski (“The Evolution of Useful Things”), I figured that Rybczynski probably had a number of Bill Bryson-like anecdotes up his sleeve.

Well, I don’t want to say I was screwed, but “One Good Turn�� was about as interesting as inserting a drill bit.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the book began as an essay in The New York Times. Rybczynski, an architecture professor at Penn, had been asked to write about “the best tool of the millennium” for a special issue of The New York Times Magazine. After some process of elimination – this tool was too old, this one not necessary enough – Rybczynski settled on the screwdriver, which had been invented in the 18th century.

So far, so decent. A worthy topic for 800 words. But maybe it should have stopped there.

Because “One Good Turn” doesn’t have much more to say. The screwdriver was derived from earlier tools with sharp edges, then refined after industrial processes made screws a mass-produced product. (That’s pretty amazing when you think about it -- that screws had to be filed by hand from nails and rivets, and no two were alike until the 1800s.) The concept of the screw itself dates back to the ancients, but were thought of more as an inclined plane around a shaft than the wall fastener we have today. It was a wonderful labor-saving device, used in milling and printing, and able to increase the amount of force a person could place on an object or use to lift one up.

What’s lacking in “One Good Turn” are people. Oh, there are a few – Peter Robertson, inventor of a socket-head screwdriver; Henry Phillips, inventor of the Phillips-head screwdriver; Jesse Ramsden, who invented an improved screw-cutting lathe – but they’re passing figures, with no more depth than a black-and-white photo in a film montage. Even Archimedes himself, the legendary mathematician and engineer who invented the screw pump, gets just a few pages towards the end.

The exception is Henry Maudslay, a blacksmith who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It’s Maudslay who we have to thank for modern precision tools and uniform screw measures, due to an incredibly accurate lathe that he created. He’s also a rarity in “One Good Turn,” a colorful character who once built a prototype of an unpickable bank lock and designed regulating screws and highly polished sheets of steel, “so that work in progress could periodically be placed on it to check if it was true.”

Without Maudslay, such inventions as steam engines would be impossible, Rybczynski observes: they required “completely new standards of perfection.” And thus we got the Industrial Age.

I imagine James Burke could have gone on for several more pages with a character like Maudslay, highlighting his eccentricities and uncovering praise from successors. But “One Good Turn” breezily keeps going, neither as deep nor as diverting as it could be.

If you’re a hardware history geek, the illustrations are probably worth the price of admission. But for a guy like me, so ham-handed that I can screw up an IKEA bookcase, I was hoping for a tale with more whimsy and astonishment. For me, “One Good Turn” was surprisingly shallow. If it were a screw, it would need a wall anchor.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,119 reviews27 followers
August 25, 2019
This book is very short and unfortunately feels a bit disorganized. Rybczynski does some great digging to find the history of the screw and the screwdriver, but the narrative is mostly about his quest to find the information and not about the actual development of the screw. I suspect that someone took Zissner's On Writing Well a bit too seriously.

In the earlier chapters, he gives a very strong impression that screwdrivers were invented some time in the 18th century, then he moves the date back to at least the 14th century, then possibly further. There are some pretty good anecdotes in here, and I now feel I have a general feel for some key points where screws and screwdrivers existed, but I'm still quite muddled about the actual development of the timeline. For example, about 60-80% of the way through the book, it seemed like the screw was invented some time between the 12th and 14th century and that screwdrivers came about soon thereafter, then he mentions in an offhand way what the Latin word for screw was and I'm like, "What?" - then blam, he goes into a whole discussion about how screws as mechanical elements have been around since antiquity!

Overall, I think there is some good information here, but it could stand to be re-organized into something closer to a linear or branching narrative and fleshed out at least a little bit. There are many digressions in this book and the whole thing was still surprisingly short (the kindle version of the book is 50% footnotes, so I was extra surprised when it ended).

To leave off my review with a positive note, I'll say two things I liked. One of the digressions that Rybczynski indulges is to make the point that buttons were invented relatively recently and not discovered independently, despite the fact that they are very simple and in fact in many cases replaced more complicated fasteners. I also did like the discussion of how precision lead-screws for lathes were bootstrapped over the course of over a decade; it's always cool to me how we are able to build precise tools with cruder tools to increase the overall precision of our devices.

2.5 of 5 stars

2.5 of 5 stars
27 reviews
January 24, 2023
So, the title of this book is what drew me to take it off the library shelf. History of the screwdriver & the screw? Really? Of course, tools need to start somewhere! The author was invited by the Editor of The New York Times to write a short essay on the best tool of the millennium. After a lot of researching multiple tools - that ended up preceding the millennium, but we still hear about due to their importance as everyday tools - Witold Rybczynski settled on the screwdriver & the screw.
We are taken on a journey over multiple millennia, through Greek & Roman era, over to America, then Medieval & modern Europe. Obviously, the screw came before the screwdriver - or did it? How did a nail morph into a screw? What was the situation/thinking that required a screw to even exist? How do you make a screw?
This is a fascinating read. I know if I read it again, I would pick up a lot more of the history that led to the modern screw & screwdriver. There have been some genius inventors over time, many who develop a tool or design to a working point, only to have someone else have the vision to take it to the next level.
This is a clever book, easy read & thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you Archimedes :)
29 reviews6 followers
July 11, 2021
Reading this book was an unexpected pleasure, for Witold Rybcznski well written narration and informed historical research turned out to be much more than the mere technical history of two of the most basic items found in every household toolbox. I highly praise Rybcznski for convincingly writing an interesting book about two very boring inanimate, yet very useful, commonplace object.

"... A Natural History..." of two manmade tools? is more of a Cultural history for this reader !

I subsequently read, and highly recommend reading, two of the books sources that Rybcznski referenced in his research: The History Of Woodworking Tools and British Planemakers from 1700
Profile Image for 1.1.
440 reviews10 followers
June 12, 2018
A nice and quick overview of the invention that changed everything forever, brought us to the moon and back, and let one man pull 60 tons of weight without breaking a sweat over two thousand years ago. So the subject, at least, is a very cool and often overlooked one. The writing is mostly agreeable but very much standard for this genre of book, the research is present and account for, and a lot of interesting things are covered, though this book could easily be 150 pages longer and go into a bit more detail—but then, it is kind of a fluff book, and beyond that just an overview, so that can be excused.
516 reviews5 followers
July 23, 2017
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 and would enjoy more and in greater detail (perhaps patent drawings?).
Profile Image for Vesa Linja-Aho.
Author 1 book14 followers
September 10, 2019
Mitenkäs se menikään, mikä tahansa aihe on mielenkiintoinen kun siihen perehtyy tarpeeksi? Tässä kirjassa se on aihe ruuvi. Kaikki ovat joskus sellaista vääntäneet, mutta harva lienee miettinyt sen historiaa. Kirjassa käydään läpi ruuvin esihistoriaa ja erilaisia ruuveja, perinteisestä "suorapäästä" eli uraruuvista Phillips-ruuviin eli "ristipäähän" ja – Kanadassa yleiseen mutta ainakin minulle uuteen Robertson-ruuviin. Ainoa pettymys kirjassa oli tuoreemman historian (Torx ym.) käsittelyn puute.

Kirja on hyvin lähteistetty, jos aihe kiinnostaa lisää.
Profile Image for Jerry Knoll.
169 reviews1 follower
July 3, 2019
What a find! I was looking for, and found One Good Turn, the mystery novel by Kate Atkinson, and saw this on the list. I got it at the same time. Such an interesting history of such an ordinary tool. I won't reach for my tool box again without thinking of the origins of the screw and the screw driver.
Profile Image for Ian.
390 reviews64 followers
September 23, 2019
A prime example of how a good writer can make something commonplace fascinating and even dramatic.

Originally written as a turn-of-the-millenium article for the NY Times, the author's expanded it into a short book.

I liked the history of the industrial rivalry between the inventor of the Roberton screw (square head) and Henry Ford and the Phillip's screw ( X head). Why is it in every human endeavour ( e.g. Edison vs. Tesla) there seems to be a bitter battle of some kind? Nature of the beast, I suppose.

A quick and compelling read that will have you looking at the humble screwdriver with new respect.
Profile Image for Jules.
40 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2020
This book feels unfinished. Not faulty, just like you got a middle draft by accident instead of a finished piece. I appreciated the openness to research and the descriptions Mr. Rybczynski gives of archives, articles, comparisons and detective work in pursuit of his subject. You do have to have some familiarity with the subject before going in or the threads and nuts will just confuse you.
Profile Image for Harry Chua.
10 reviews
September 10, 2017
If you are an engineer or you are interested in mathematics, this is a good book for the weekend. The author has done a good job tracing back the history of screw and threaded devices... Keep this book away from your girlfriend ha
Profile Image for Erika.
2,044 reviews69 followers
Shelved as 'lost-interest-dnf-not-gonna-read-it'
February 24, 2020
Profile Image for Abe.
22 reviews
November 28, 2020
Seems like a lot of research and curiosity went into this, but it didn’t really hit home with me- maybe because I don’t use tools on the daily. The Archimedes research and dime quotes in the last chapter made it all worthwhile though.
120 reviews
November 20, 2017
Not bad, ended really abruptly. I was a little wary because some of the tool descriptions in the beginning were ever so slightly off. It made me question the accuracy of what was to come.
69 reviews
November 6, 2018
A really fun short read. Recommended for anyone who enjoys research- in its first half, it's primarily a research narrative, and as it closes it's a lively history. I found it quite engaging.
Profile Image for Elif Ayvaz Rangil.
54 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2019
Vida ile tornavidanın ne zaman ve nasıl icat edildiğini merak etmiş miydiniz hiç? Ben etmiştim doğrusu. Güzel ve bilgilendirici bie kitaptı. ☺
Profile Image for Nicole Ankenmann.
268 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2019
Everything you ever wanted to know about this humble team of tools, and much, much more. A documentary in print.
699 reviews18 followers
December 29, 2019
Interesting little book on a common item we don't think much about. Discusses people of ancient history like Archimedes and a glossary of sketches is included
435 reviews7 followers
December 30, 2019
This was short. What there was was interesting but not fascinating. If it had been longer, it would have gotten boring, so kudos to the author for not trying to stretch his material.
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