A small book by Witold Rybczynski, subtitled "A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw," published in 2000 by Scribner, ISBN 0-684-86729-x. The author was asked by a New York Times editor to write an article on the best tool of the millennium for the Sunday magazine, and this book recounts not only his search for an appropriate subject, but also the history of several familiar objects.
Through his research, Rybczynski discovers that the screwdriver is probably the most recent invention to be found in today's toolbox. Even more interesting is the history of the little threaded fastener, the screw. The book traces this history all the way back to Archimedes, who may have been the first person to use one. The screw is a Western invention, unknown to ancient Chinese and other Asian cultures. Its popular use required not only a need for a fastener superior to nails, but also the technology to make precision screws. The helical shape of the threads is mathematically and mechanically complicated, and cutting those threads evenly in hard metals was not a trivial task when each screw had to be cut by hand. Nuts were even threaded to match individual screws, so that losing or damaging one half of the pair meant replacing both. Along the way, the lathe had to be invented and improved.
Screws were necessary for many advances in Western technology. From early uses in water screws and wine presses, to the printing press, to fasteners of medieval armor and in early guns, and then more recently in scientific instruments, the screw has found thousands of applications. Famous inventors including Leonardo da Vinci and Henry Maudslay worked to improve the making of screws. Besides the simple flathead screwdriver, dozens of screw heads have been developed (many with specialized screwdrivers): Henry F. Phillips of the United States created a screw with a cruciform head, and Canadian Peter L. Robertson invented a socket-head screw that was safer and more efficient than any previous type.
This book is a short and highly enjoyable read for anyone interested in tools or history. The writing is smooth and fine, with an underlying humor as well as a sense of the author's deep appreciation for hand tools. From the dust jacket, "Rybczynski writes an ode to the screw, without which there would be no telescope, no microscope--in short, no enlightenment science." The book also includes, at the end, a "Glossary of Tools" with delicate line drawings of the various tools discussed throughout the book, which is a treat by itself. The title refers to the common saying "one good turn deserves another" which I understand means that every good deed should produce or be answered by another good deed. In this case, the invention of the screw is followed by the invention of the screwdriver, and both are good.