Millennium's Best Tool Turns out to Be Metal Miracle of Ancient Greece

By West, Woody | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Millennium's Best Tool Turns out to Be Metal Miracle of Ancient Greece


West, Woody, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


To accompany a disciplined mind along an unfamiliar path of inquiry is a prime joy of reading. That is the reward of Witold Rybczynski's "One Good Turn" - the more so when the topic is so ordinary, the screw and the screwdriver.

Our interest about mundane objects and functions that we take for granted is heightened as our daily world becomes increasingly and astonishingly complex. Do most of us tapping at a computer have a clue how the device works?

This "natural history" had its origin when an editor suggested an essay on the best tool of the millennium. Mr. Rybczynski is an architect who'd written an admired book of how he and his wife, Shirley, had built their own house. He was finishing a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead ("A Clearing in the Distance") and the tool essay seemed a break from authorial heavy lifting.

When he sifted the possibilities, however, Mr. Rybczynski found that most of the tools that came to mind antedated the millennium that was about to go to the archives - the saw and chisel, the hammer and so forth. Stumped, he took his predicament - as any sensible husband would do - to his wife. The screwdriver, she said, "You always need a screwdriver for something."

Rummaging in resource books, Mr. Rybczynski found the screwdriver was one of the last additions to the woodworker's toolbox, generally after 1800. Puzzled by the late appearance of "a laughably simple tool," and working backward in time, he was off on his quest.

In a British dictionary of tools, he learned that in parts of Great Britain when the world was younger, the screwdriver was referred to as a Turnscrew - a literal translation of the French. He located a 1772 Paris encyclopedia that described in detail how screws were countersunk in brass plates and moldings inlaid into furniture. As he bored more deeply into the past, he found that hand-forged screws also turned up in the 15th and 16th centuries in applications in armor and early firearms. And if screws, why, a screwdriver to be sure.

Jumping over the centuries as Mr. Rybczynski riffled old volumes, his intellectual quarry eventually was run to ground: A round of applause for the Greek mathematician, Archimedes, the "Sicilian" - from the island city-state of Syracuse, who lived in the 3rd century B.C. Archimedes studied in Alexandria with successors to Euclid, returned to Syracuse and became famed in the ancient world for, among many scientific, mathematical and mechanical achievements, devising proofs in both plane and solid geometry. Classical sources for the most part also attribute the invention of the "endless screw" to Archimedes, an ingenious device for raising water - used for irrigation and draining mines.

The testimony from antiquity arduously adduced by the author would also credit the Greek from Syracuse for adapting the idea of the helix to construction of the endless screw - the progenitive principle of today's garden-variety screw that holds so much of our world together. "Then we must add a small but hardly trifling honor to his many distinguished achievements: Father of the Screw," writes Mr. Rybczynski.

Reflecting on this, the author ponders the remarkable process of refining an abstraction into practicality, and on the instruments and men that provided ever greater precision and productive techniques. …

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