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One Good Turn:

A Natural History of the

Peter L. Robertson had lots of little obsessions: brainstorms, fits of inspiration, crazy thoughts that propelled this Canadian traveling salesman working for a Philadelphia tool company into his workshop. Robertson’s ambitions as an inventor at first seemed less like Thomas Edison’s than, say, those of the mastermind to whom we owe the “soft white” bulb. He patented an innovative corkscrew. Modified cufflinks. And even, according to Witold Rybczynski, made a better mousetrap.

Then, in 1907, Robertson received the patent for his pièce de résistance: his socket-head screw. The helix-shaped tool had been around for a couple of centuries by then, but no one had cracked the code on how to make screws, well, screw in easily. “The big fortunes are in the small inventions,” Robertson told investors. “This is considered by many as the biggest little invention of the 20th century so far.” A grandiose thinker was Robertson, indeed.

Unlike the common slotted or so-called flat-head screw, Robertson’s featured a square indentation with slightly tapering sides and a pyramidal bottom. “[B]y the use of this form of punch, constructed with the exact angles indicated, cold metal would flow to the sides, and not be driven ahead of the tools, resulting beneficially in knitting the atoms into greater strength, and also assisting in the work of lateral extension, and without a waste or cutting away of any metal so treated, as is the case in the manufacture of the ordinary slotted head screw,” Robertson asserted.

Translation for the mechanically challenged: no fumbling, no stripped sockets, no “Aw, shit” when the screw falls out of the hole, hits the ground, and rolls out of sight. Robertson delivered a screw that fit snugly in its place and a screwdriver that remained firmly in hand afterward. A do-it-yourself builder’s dream.

So how the hell did Henry F. Phillips’ design—the Phillips-head screw—end up as the fastener of choice holding together everything from tricycles to car doors to airplanes?

Genius, Edison famously stated, is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. So maybe Phillips had more productive sweat glands, the secretion including a little creative marketing and business savvy. The power of idea, sad to say, just isn’t enough. Even an idea superior in design and results: “After driving hundreds of screws by hand and with a cordless drill fitted with a Robertson tip, we’re convinced,” announced Consumer Reports in November 1995. “Compared with slotted and Phillips-head screwdrivers, the Robertson worked faster, with less cam-out.”

Robertson lived out his days quite modestly in Milton, Ontario. And where, almost a century after its brilliant inception, can you still find a Robertson screw? In Canada, somehow suitably, in specialist woodworking shops, and in the prose of Witold Rybczynski, author of One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

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Rybczynski’s a man with a few fetishes himself. As he explains in One Good Turn, and as readers of his earlier work The Most Beautiful House in the World already know, Rybczynski and his wife built their home solely with hand tools. No power saws or Black & Decker electric drills (except to complete some finishing and cabinetry work, he admits).

When an editor at the New York Times Magazine needed a writer for an essay on the best tool of the millennium, he dialed up Rybczynski, who is also a professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. The screwdriver didn’t seem an obvious choice at first to Rybczynski, but it did to his wife, who pointed out the tool’s ubiquity in utility drawers across the country. I, in fact, have a Phillips-head screwdriver—sorry again, Robertson—sitting on top of my computer, just in case.

Once he settled on the screwdriver, Rybczynski’s first challenge was determining whether the tool had come into existence within the last 1,000 years. Most other common instruments, such as hammers and drills, date back to the Bronze or Iron Age. Wood screws, Rybczynski discovered, began appearing in the 16th century as components in contraptions such as the olive press. Screwdrivers didn’t show up with any kind of frequency until almost 200 years later.

Rybczynski wrote a delightful essay for a Y2K magazine supplement, not unlike other works that have examined the histories of the pencil, the bookshelf, and other common household items. Then an editor at Scribner convinced Rybczynski to make his magazine piece into a book. Bad idea.

Rybczynski obviously believes that his account of his quest for the origins of the screwdriver—”The bolts have square heads and are tightened with a wrench, which may be why Moxon does not mention a screwdriver, here or anywhere else in his book. I keep looking. There are false leads”—is as suspense-driven as an Agatha Christie. It’s not. It describes the same process that any academic—or journalist, for that matter—would go through when researching a topic using primary source materials. The book also gets bogged down in overly detailed descriptions of instruments and their mechanics, leaving golden nuggets like Robertson too few and far between.

Still, Rybczynski engages in some interesting ideas throughout, like how exactly innovations come about:

[W]hile most of us would bridle at the suggestion that if Cézanne, say, had not lived, someone else would have created similar paintings, we readily accept the notion that the emergence of a new technology is inevitable or, at least, determined by necessity…..But the sudden and “mysterious” appearance of tools such as the carpenter’s brace or the medieval bench lathe cannot be explained by necessity. Such tools are the result of leaps of an individual’s creative imagination.

Take something as simple as the button: Buttons were used only as ornaments until the 13th century, when someone came up with the concept of the buttonhole. A seemingly obvious thing, but a very clever concept, as Rybczynski explains. The button makes you wonder how many other everyday objects may be underutilized.

At the end of the day, I’m tempted to agree with Rybczynski’s thesis. A few weeks ago, John the repairman from Sears Home Central and I stared into the fiery Hades below the drum of a Whirlpool clothes dryer. An orange glow filled the metal cavity but radiated no warmth. That’s because, John explained, the dryer’s burner delivered gas to the igniter only intermittently. Very intermittently. Like, almost never.

Enter a little professional intervention. John dipped into his clear plastic toolbox, filled with all sorts of Craftsman goodies. A yellow-handled screwdriver emerged. John wrapped his fingers around the metal rod and banged the burner with the handle two or three times. Poof. Within seconds, a fire blazed.

The best tool of the millennium, indeed. CP