Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Even Julia Childs Turned a Few of These

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Even Julia Childs Turned a Few of These

Article excerpt

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

173 pp., $22

What noncooking tool is probably found in more kitchen drawers than any other?

The screwdriver.

Although not big, it's very useful. It's also frequently overlooked, which is what author Witold Rybczynski did in trying to identify the best tool of the millennium - until his wife mentioned the screwdriver's domestic ubiquity.

A newspaper editor's request for an essay on "the best tool" has now spawned a whole book on the humble implement by the award- winning author of "A Clearing in the Distance," the biography of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Most hand tools, Rybczynski discovered, originated during the Roman period. This history eliminated the plane, a favorite of many woodworkers.

The screwdriver may be "laughably simple," but its late appearance in the human record intrigued Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mention of screwdrivers, he found, was rare in his search of museum collections, tool catalogs, and old documents. The paper trail pretty much ran out in 1723, which isn't to say there weren't primitive screwdrivers long before this.

Screws existed in medieval armor, so some means of driving them had to exist. But the tool didn't need to resemble today's household screwdrivers.

Whatever could be fashioned by the local blacksmith might do. In fact, the earliest flat screwdriver blade Rybczynski found nearly escaped his notice. Only upon closer examination of a pair of 16th- century, armormaker's pincers, found in a British museum, did he realize that one handle end was shaped into a simple screwdriver. It reminded him of a multi-purpose "gimcrack household gadget sold by Hammacher Schlemmer"

With so few screws, a part-time tool sufficed. Until screws could be mass-manufactured, they had to be handcrafted. Given the threads, this was much more tedious and demanding work than making nails, so it took industrialization to catapult screws and screwdrivers into everyday items.

The beauty of the screw, Rybczynski explains, is that it creates a mechanical bond with the material it penetrates. …

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