Book Review: One Good Turn

One Good Turn
Witold Rybczynski

Just as David Ewing Duncan used the Calendar as a means of viewing the history of the world (see Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, by David Ewing Duncan, published by Avon Books, available at, Witold Rybczynski, in One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, takes the reader through a survey of twentieth century mechanical history in highlighting an important invention which today is certainly taken for granted.

One Good Turn is the story of Archimedes, who invented the water screw and introduced the helix, and Leonardo, who drafted a sketch of a machine for carving wood screws.  One Good Turn is the story of discovery from Ancient Greece to the Italian Renaissance, to industrialization in the Americas.

Although wars were not fought over the screwdriver, the war industry played a role in its history.  The First World War diverted attention away from Canadian Peter L. Robertson’s improved screw-screwdriver combination (which, in the late twentieth century, Consumers Reports magazine rated as being vastly superior to its Phillips counterpart – the Robertson model “worked faster with less cam-out”.)

Wartime industry during the Second World War ensured the adoption of Henry E. Phillips’ (yes there was a Phillips behind the Phillips screw and screwdriver) product as an industry standard, as momentum from the automotive industry’s adoption  of socket screws (starting with the 1936 Cadillac) made this socket screw an important component of the war machine.

Rybczynski’s project started when editors of the New York Times asked him to write an essay identifying the “best tool of the millennium.”  Without the screw, there would be no telescope, no microscope, perhaps no Internet – no scientific apparatus which requires any degree of precision and craftsmanship.

You can order this book on line right now at

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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