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

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 Philips 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.


  1. I'm not a huge reader, but when I have time to read, I do like to go with quirky non-fiction, and this seems right up my alley. I skimmed your bullet points in this post because I want to be surprised. This book is definitely one that I'll read soon.

    P.S.- Thanks so much for your recent visit to my vegan blog. It was really nice of you to comment.

  2. hi Lola! it was pleasure to poke around your blog - i'll be back :)

    this was an unexpectedly good read, so i'd love to hear your thoughts when you get around to reading it! have a wonderful rest of the week!


© guiltless readingMaira Gall