Witold Rybczynski is fascinated with tools. In Home: A Short History of an Idea (1987), he described how he built a house with only hand tools. He combined his love for architecture and history in A Clearing in the Distance (1999), a biography of the nineteenth century American architect Frederick Law Olmstead. One Good Turn is the natural product of these earlier books. In his quest for evidence of screwdrivers and screws, Rybczynski moves back in time from the year 2000 to the Greek inventor Archimedes (c. 287-212 b.c.e.).
The text is accompanied by Rybczynski’s own drawings of tools and illustrations derived from his wide-reaching research. These illustrations include Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli’s bookwheel and portable flour mill of 1588 and a detail from Meister Francke’s altarpieceBearing the Cross (c. 1424) in which a medieval craftsman carries a basket of tools. A page from Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; Encyclopedia, 1965) depicts drawings of several early screwdrivers. A page of screwdrivers is reproduced from a tool catalog published in 1870 by William Marples & Sons of Sheffield, England. In an appended glossary of tools, Rybczynski draws not just screwdrivers but also braces, augers, adzes, saws, squares, bevels, and levels.
The idea for this book springs from an end-of-millennium fascination with landmarks and Rybczynski’s essay on the best tool of the millennium in “The Best of the Millennium,” a special issue of the The New York TimesSunday magazine. Rybczynski’s first candidates for this tool were instruments such as paper clips, fountain pens, and eyeglasses, but his editor preferred a handworking tool. So Rybczynski looked in his own carpenter’s toolbox, which gave its name to the first chapter of One Good Turn. Rybczynski’s squares, bevels, and plumbs could all be traced back to Roman and Egyptian measuring tools, and were thus too early to be the best tools of the second millennium of the present era. So, too, were cutting and shaping tools such as saws, planes, and chisels, as well as various hammering tools. Among his drilling tools, Rybczynski’s auger was an ancient invention, and his carpenter’s brace was probably medieval in origin. Rybczynski argued that the brace, while important, had developed little and did not quite meet the criteria for the tool of a millennium marked by sophisticated technological advancements. In the end, Rybczynski thought of the apparently simple screwdriver, which was unknown to the Romans and seemingly younger than even the medieval brace.
In “Turnscrews,” the second chapter of One Good Turn, Rybczynski begins his search for the first screwdriver in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the earliest entry for the word “screwdriver” was attributed to the Scotsman Peter Nicholson in 1812. Suspecting that the screwdriver was older still, Rybczynski uncovered a labeled illustration of a screwdriver in the third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1797). The tenth edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaryincluded a reference to the tool in a 1779 Virginia will. Raphael A. Salaman’s Dictionary of Tools Used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades (1975) provided Rybczynski with a critical clue in his quest for the “screwdriver”—a common British word for the tool used to be “turnscrew.” Since “turnscrew” is a literal English translation of the French tournevis, Rybczynski turned his attention to the French Encyclopédie, with three entries on tournevis and evidence that the word existed in French as early as 1723. With this material, Rybczynski wrote “One Good Turn,” the essay commissioned for the millennial issue of The New York Times Magazine of April 18, 1999.
Wondering if the screwdriver was a medieval invention, Rybczynski turned, in chapter three, “Lock, Stock, and Barrel,” to the sixteenth century artist Albrecht Dürer, who depicted many tools, but no screwdriver. In a 1588 work on ingenious machines by Ramelli, Rybczynski found no screwdrivers, but he did find some screws on a hand-cranked flour mill. Even earlier were depictions of screws on leg irons and manacles in the Medieval Housebook, an anonymous manuscript written c. 1475-1490.
The use of screws in metalwork led Rybczynski to the history of weaponry and to the arquebus, the first shoulder-fired gun, which appeared in Europe in the mid-1400’s. Soon, a spring-released arm called a matchlock was invented to control the firing mechanism. In the armory of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Rybczynski saw matchlocks attached with screws to the stock of a sixteenth century arquebus. In a standard reference book on firearms, Rybczynski found screw-attached matchlocks depicted in illustrations dating to 1475.
Rybczynski then looked more closely at medieval armor. While rivets, pins, and leather straps were first used to attach metal sections of armor, some...
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