Today, the screwdriver. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Witold Rybczynski, who writes
on technologies of the home, offers grist for the
listeners who've asked me to talk about screws. His
book, One Good Turn, A Natural History of the
Screwdriver and the Screw, came about after his
editor pressed him to do an article in 1999 on
"the most important tool of the past millennium."
Ribczynski finally chose, not the screw, but the
Screw threads have been used in machines ever since
Archimedes. Ancient screws all took the form of
threads wound about a straight cylinder.
Tapered screw threads, with their powerful
grip, were a lot harder to make, and they appeared
much later. Rybczynski finds tapered screws
throughout the early Renaissance. They show up in
late suits of armor and early firearms. He finds
them in Renaissance clockwork and flourmills.
But the story gets interesting because Rybczynski
set out to talk about screwdrivers. What he
ran into was something we've often seen in this
series. That's the remarkable invisibility of so
much really important technology. The little things
-- the ones we cannot do without -- are precisely
what we fail to notice.
Rybczynski begins his quest with the Oxford
English Dictionary -- the OED. Instead of
defining words, the OED traces how they were used
at different times. The oldest OED reference is
from 1812. It quotes a handbook that defines a
Screw Driver as "a tool used to turn screws into their places."
As Rybczynski looks further, he
finds the word screwdriver only here and
there, and only as far back as the late 1700s.
he spots one isolated reference to a gadget called
a turnscrew. But that's a literal
translation of the French word for a screwdriver --
tournevis. If he's to find any historical
reference to screwdrivers, maybe he needs to go to
France. Sure enough, Diderot's
vast eighteenth-century encyclopaedia of the
arts and trades yields one tiny illustration of a
And so the game goes. Rybczinski fights his way
back through old documents and artifacts. Early
gun-makers began using tapered screws to hold parts
together because they were more secure than other
fasteners. Some were turned with wrenches, but
slots appeared in the top of others. So we know
screwdrivers were in use.
Of course tapered screws were hard to make by hand.
Not until the nineteenth century would we have
automated screw-making machines. Only then did
screws become mainstream fasteners. But
screwdrivers had existed for centuries
before that, and we find virtually no written
record of them -- no words, no pictures.
I suspect that's exactly why Rybczynski chooses the
screwdriver as the most important tool of the
millennium. Each of us owns several of them. Yet,
down through centuries, they've been utterly taken
for granted and deemed to be beneath any mention in
our books. Find a better marker of greatness than
that if you can -- omnipresence in utter anonymity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds