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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
This charming little book by the author of Home and A Clearing in the Distance came out of an assignment Rybczynski took on for The New York Times Magazine. During millennial fever, all sorts of "best-of" lists were being compiled. Rybczynski's project was "The Best Tool of the Millennium," a more difficult task than it might seem at first glance because so many of our standard tools were invented long before the year A.D.1000. For example, the screw was mentioned in a text dated to A.D. 66, in the context of a screw press (for processing grapes and olives), so this familiar item alone could actually qualify as the best tool of the last two millennia. The first half of One Good Turn chronicles Rybczynski's quest for the earliest mention of the screwdriver, while the second half is a history of its predecessor.
Rybczynski's quest for the origins of the screwdriver initially ran into several dead ends. References, such as the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica, dated the screwdriver to 1800. This relatively late date intrigues Rybczynski, and his book turns into a detective story of sorts, filled with musty tomes showing medieval contraptions held together by screws with slotted heads -- a simple deduction being that where there are screws there must be screwdrivers. At first, terminology is the problem. The word "screwdriver" makes a late appearance because the tool was previously known by the name "turnscrew," perhaps a translation of the French tournevis. Rybczynski sets his sights on France and pushes back the first mention to the mid-18th century. This date doesn't satisfy, though, because the tool looks too "finished" to be the very first screwdriver. The 1556 text De Re Metallica is clearly illustrated with a slotted-head screw. Then the idea occurs to Rybczynski that warfare has traditionally been the mother of invention. At last he finds an example with the oldest screw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is on a piece of 15th-century armor. So the screwdriver is at least 500 years old. But tools, such as presses, that use the screw shape are much older and widely used. The ancient Romans even had linen presses. So who invented the screw? The concept of a screw is not intuitively obvious like other tools, such as a saw. As Rybczynski points out, the water screws of the 2nd century B.C. represent perhaps the first human creation of a helix. Rybczynski posits that it was the great mathematician Archimedes (of "Eureka!" fame) who is credited with the invention of the water screw and who therefore should be known as the Father of the Screw -- perhaps a greater leap of imagination than has been recognized by posterity.
-- Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor