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One Good Turn
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The Best Tool of the Millennium The seeds of Rybczynski's elegant and illuminating new book were sown by The New York Times, whose editors asked him to write an essay identifying "the best tool of the millennium." The award-winning author of Home, A Clearing in the Distance, and Now I Sit Me Down, Rybczynski once built a house using only hand tools. His intimate knowledge of the toolbox -- both its contents and its history -- serves him beautifully on his quest. One Good Turn is a story starring Archimedes, who invented the water screw and introduced the helix, and Leonardo, who sketched a machine for carving wood screws. It is a story of mechanical discovery and genius that takes readers from ancient Greece to car design in the age of American industry. Rybczynski writes an ode to the screw, without which there would be no telescope, no microscope -- in short, no enlightenment science. One of our finest cultural and architectural historians, Rybczynski renders a graceful, original, and engaging portrait of the tool that changed the course of civilization.
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Acclaimed hardware, household and landscape writer Rybczynski invites readers to see how the world got screwedÄand why it took so long, and how it felt. Romans had most of our hand tools, though cranks are medieval; screws and screwdrivers, however, originatedÄwhen? Scottish crafts manuals from around the time of the American Revolution give screwdrivers as "turnscrews"; the same word in French, tournevis, turns up in 1723. Even earlier, screws appeared as a spinoff from Renaissance warfare, keeping the parts of a matchlock rifle linked. Used in timepieces and armaments, the screws of the 16th century were hand-cutÄboth expensive and unreliable. Efficient, widespread screwing required (a) more uses, to up the demand; (b) steam power, aka the Industrial Revolution; and (c) smart mechanics and engineers, who invented the manufacturing procedures that Rybczynski describes. Canada's Peter L. Robertson came up with the wondrous socket-head (square-holed) screw; the inferior Phillips (+-holed) head came later, but became standard outside Canada. Siege engines, early firearms like the arquebus, 19th-century child labor, the precision lathe, door hinges and the great minds of ancient Greek geometry also figure among the threads of Rybczynski's tightly wound exposition. A professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Rybczynski began this book after the New York Times asked him to pick the Tool of the Millennium. The short volume can feel like a bagatelle compared to Rybczynski's most ambitious projectsÄhis biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, or the endeavor (chronicled in his Home) of building his own house plank by plank. Nevertheless, Rybczynski's many fansÄand those who care for the history of hardwareÄwill want to stick their heads in his new book: many will find themselves fastened to its story. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

What a delightful book! Who would have guessed that something as ordinary and useful as the screwdriver and the screw would also be so fascinating. When asked by the New York Times Magazine to write an essay on the best tool of the past thousand years, cultural historian Rybczynski (A Clearing in the Distance) struggled to find one, as most tools are far older, until he hit upon the screwdriver and the screw (although these instruments also may have mysterious origins that precede the millennium). In his trademark clear, elegant prose, Rybczynski traces the history of the screwdriver and screw from Hero's screw press and Archimedes' water screw to the 20th century's Phillips head. Home craftspeople, artists, history buffs, and engineers will delight in the story he tellsDhow such humble tools influenced society. Rybczynski points out that in the hands of mechanical geniuses like Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), the ability to fully exploit the screw led directly to precision tool making and the resulting enormous strides in building steam engines, railroads, bridges, etc. In writing this book, Rybczynski draws from art, literature, history, and engineering; readers will find themselves checking, as did Rybczynski, the details of illustrations and paintings for further clues. Highly recommended for all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/00.]DMichael D. Cramer, Raleigh, NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Paul Challen The Toronto Star One Good Turn is a good, short read in the classic Rybczynksi mode -- an ordinary thing, explained extraordinarily. M. R. Montgomery The New York Times Book Review What Rybczynski sees is that everything that requires mechanical precision, and that includes the instrumentation of modern science, rises out of the perfection of the simple screw and the complex machinery required to manufacture these indispensable items.

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