One Good Turn: a natural history of the screwdriver by Witold Rybczynski

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1)   I choose the books.

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  • 1 Nod — If you are interested in the general subject matter, read it.

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One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski

I am interested in “perfect things.” Perfect things: items that are the ne plus ultra of design, construction, and performance. A Perfect Thing serves its purpose exquisitely. A Perfect Thing is pared down to the absolute minimum of necessary One Good Turncharacteristics. Paper clips are perfect – a three inch piece of wire, three perfect bends- papers held perfectly. The screw and the screwdriver – an inclined plane perfectly wrapped in a helix around a cone or cyclinder, with a small indentation on top for the screwdriver to grasp. Perfect.

Yet, prior to the 1700s, should one need either screws or a screwdriver, one would be hard-pressed to stumble upon any at the corner store. This fact fascinated one of our finest writers, Witold Rybczynski so much that he wrote One Good Turn; A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

Rybczynski (visit the author’s website), the author of eighteen exceptional books, primarily on culture, design, and architecture, is that rarest of writers. He can shift gears from the largest of ideas (the birth of New York City’s Central Park) to the smallest (microtechnology) and, effortlessly, bring the reader along, rapt in the quality of his prose and ideas.

Here, at the start of Chapter Three, is Rybczynski on the development of tools.

There are tools, such as the handsaw, that develop slowly and are refined over centuries. Others, such as the carpenter’s brace, are adaptations of a new scientific principle. Then there are those inventions that appear seemingly out of the blue. The button, for example, a useful device that secures clothing against cold drafts, was unknown for most of mankind’s history. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans wore loose tunics, cloaks, and togas. Buttons were likewise absent in traditional dress through the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. True, the climate in these places is mild, but northern dress was likewise buttonless. Eskimos and Vikings slipped their clothes over their heads and cinched them with belts and straps; Celts wrapped themselves in kilts; the Japanese used sashes to fasten their robes. The Romans did use buttons to ornament clothing, yet the buttonhole eluded them. The ancient Chinese invented the toggle and loop, but never went on to invent the button and buttonhole, which are both simpler to make and more convenient to use. Then, suddenly, in the thirteenth century in northern Europe, the button appeared. Or, more precisely, the button and buttonhole. The invention of this combination-so simple, yet so cunning- is a mystery. There was no scientific or technological breakthrough-buttons can be easily made from wood, horn, or bone; the buttonhole is merely a slit in the fabric. Yet, the leap of imagination that this deceptively simple device required is impressive. Try to describe in words the odd flick-and-twist motion as you button and unbutton and you realize just how complicated it is. The other mystery of the button is the manner of its discovery. It is difficult to imagine the button evolving-it either exists or it doesn’t. We don’t know who invented the button and buttonhole, but he – more likely she-was a genius.


Three hundred words, and suddenly, you need to know more about buttons. From this starting point about the mystery and genius surrounding the simplest of tools, Witold Rybczynski takes us with him as he sorts through the world’s great archives, searching out works of art, literature, and pre-Columbian wartime records which might give a clue to the earliest screws, and their development as the key construction tool of the post-Civil War era.

In just over one-hundred and fifty pages, a brief history of Western Civilization is laid before us. Rybczynski tells the story of the development of the screw, and its mate, the turnscrew. Yet, with the story of the tool, he weaves in stories of culture, geography, history, design, and business. The screw is such a small device, yet it functions perfectly. It is perfectly mated to its alter-ego, the screwdriver. It is hard to imagine life without screws, yet several hundred years ago, this was the case. Rybczynski not only informs, he gives us back our child-like sense of wonder as we look at a bookcase, a computer case, the doors of our automobiles. He makes you care about screws.

I do like perfect things. When I read Rybcznki, I get perfect prose- the correct words, perfectly chosen, to describe a perfect idea-the screw.

The Rating: 2.5 nods.





The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at

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