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?
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. A nail, on the other hand, holds simply by friction.
The screw, with its gracefully swirled threads, is a design of impressive utility. The helix shape, the author is convinced, was no accident and required a mathematical genius to apply its complex geometry. Rybcznski believes that Archimedes of ancient Greece invented the water screw and later adapted it. Therefore, he deserves to be called the Father of the Screw.
While a screw's shaft is a marvel of applied science, its head is what the average user notices. Is it a single-slot, a criss-crossed Phillips, or a square socket head? Slotted screws are probably the easiest to make, but they can be infuriating and even dangerous to use when the screwdriver slips from the slot.
The effort to find a superior head is an interesting story in its own right. From 1860 to 1890, the author discovered, American screw manufacturers explored numerous solutions, including magnetic screwdrivers and double slotted screws.
In 1906, Canadian Peter Robertson hit on a head design with a square recess that is still a favorite among many woodworkers. The Robertson head, however, is only standard in Canada.
The Phillips head emerged as the choice of the international community. Henry F. Phillips, a Portland, Ore., businessman and former traveling salesman, hit on the idea of an X-shaped socket head. It was initially rejected, but eventually accepted by the American Screw Co., which persuaded General Motors in 1936 to use the Phillips-head screw in manufacturing Cadillacs.
The auto industry soon embraced it, setting the stage for even wider acceptance during World War II. Automakers liked the fact that there is a degree of cam-out or slippage inherent in the Phillips design that allows automated screw-driving machines to pop out once the screw is tight.
Rybczynski turns this history round and round till he's hit the nail - or screw - on the head.
*Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff writer.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society