"there's a funny story about that...":
witold rybczinski gets obsessed

 
One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw
Witold Rybczynski
(Harper Flamingo, 171 pages)
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After a career writing about the history of the home, urban planning, house construction and the creation of the urban park, it’s commonplace to regard writer Witold Rybczynski as a sort of thoughtful tour guide to the modern, material world. Certainly, that was probably what the New York Times editor who assigned him to write about “the best tool of the millenium” was thinking. 

There are people out there who would certainly find Mr. Rybczynski a tedious dinner companion, given to long, digression-filled dissertations on whatever subject came to hand (“Sewage? Well, I have a funny story about sewage. It seems that around 3000 B.C....”). Then again, there are a few people, like myself, who like nothing better than to hear his friendly narratives about whatever might have obsessed him lately. In the case of this book, it started when he decided to write about the screwdriver.

Rybzynski spends the first chapter describing how he decided on the screwdriver, and the second listing the facts he was able to collect that let him write his Times piece. It didn’t end there, though, and in short order he’s leafing through old machinist’s catalogues and armourer’s text’s tracing the history of the screw, assuming that wherever there were screws, there were screwdrivers. 

A notoriously difficult thing to manufacture, screws were precious commodities for centuries, essential in the assembly of guns and clocks, despite the basic inaccuracy of the hand-forged screw. In a classic case of mass-manufacture providing more advantage than hand craftsmanship, the screw only became cheap, plentiful, and widely useful when sturdy, identical quantities were made available in the early 19th century.

The story of the screw, however, isn’t enough for Rybczynski, and he continues his quest, beyond the middle ages, to the history of the threaded flange, the differential and the worm gear. He follows dead ends and faint clues into antiquity, till an ancient Greek shipwreck and the writings of Hero bring him to Archimides, who, after much careful discussion of the overlooked genius of Greek mechanical genius in favour of the Romans, he pronounces the father of the screw. Thus the book ends, on a flourish that seems like an afterthought, and we sit at our places,the table suddenly silent, while Rybczynski sits, no doubt, a very pleased look on his face.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis
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