marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

One Good Turn

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

For a rather modern tool, it takes a good amount of hunting to track down the history and origin of the screwdriver.

It opens with an account of his being asked to do an article on the tool of the millennium.  This is somewhat complicated by his hunt through his wood-working tools to find those that aren't millennia old.  To be sure, there are some.  Like the brace.

And as he finally realizes, the screwdriver, which indeed seems to be 18th century.

It takes some hunting.  A French reference, older than the oldest English one by half a century, talked about the tournevis.  English ones were called "turnscrews" -- a direct translation -- for a while, though the author, who ran across the assertion, didn't really believe it until he stumbled on a page of such "turnscrews" in a catalog.

There were screws in the medieval era, in armor and machinery.  Not many.  Usually the screwdriver would be improvised, probably.  Even in the early modern era, screws were so difficult to make by hand that they were not sold in lots but individually; the rarity of usage argued against a dedicated tool.  Still, like the button-and-buttonhole, the screw as a fastener seems to come from this era.  A writer talked of how they were better in making a bellows than nails were.

But in the chapter on lathes -- which are used to make screws as well as using them -- he found what might be the first screwdriver.  German, not French, and used to adjust the cutter on the lathe.  A useful tool, especially when you want to make regulating screws, which require great precision in cutting, and as soon as they were made, spread out through many, many, many applications for measurement.

It also goes into the importance of industrialization for their spread, and the invention first the Robertson and then the Phillips head screw.

The last chapter talks about such screws as the Romans used.  There was no reason why they couldn't have invented the screw as fastener, but they didn't.  They used screws in presses -- olive presses, for instance -- in a form that would later appear as the printing press.  And Archimedes, of course, invented the water screw.  It feels a little tacked on, but it does have interesting stuff.
Tags: history reviews: across eras, world-building: technology

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