Monday, October 17, 2011

Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn

When you see a bucket of screws at the hardware store, you probably don’t think of them as technology. After reading One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski, you will think different.

Rybczynski argues that the screw was an exceptionally creative solution to the problem of fastening things. To illustrate what we take for granted today, he provides this capsule history of another fastener:

[A] useful device that secures clothing against cold drafts, [the button] was unknown for most of mankind’s history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans wore loose tunics, cloaks, and togas. Buttons were likewise absent in traditional dress throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. True, the climate in these places is middle, but northern dress was likewise buttonless. Eskimos and Vikings slipped their clothes over their heads and cinched them with belts and straps; Celts wrapped themselves in kilts; the Japanese used sashes to fasten their robes. The Romans did use buttons to ornament clothing, but the buttonhole eluded them. The ancient Chinese invented the toggle and loop, but never went on to the button and buttonhole, which are both simpler to make and more convenient to use. Then, suddenly in the thirteenth century in northern Europe, the button appeared. Or, more precisely, the button and the buttonhole. The invention of this combination—so simple, yet so cunning—is a mystery. There was no scientific or technical breakthrough—buttons can easily be made from wood, horn, or bone; the buttonhole is merely a slit in the fabric. Yet the leap of imagination that this deceptively simple device required is impressive. Try to describe in words the odd flick-and-twist motion as you button and unbutton and you realize just how complicated it is. The other mystery of the button is the manner of its discovery. It is difficult to imagine the button evolving—it either exists or it doesn’t. We don’t know who invented the button and the buttonhole, but he—more likely she—was a genius.

I have quoted at length because the passage is a miniature version of the book. Replace button with screw, and you’ve got Rybczynski’s thesis: Whereas nails came from spikes, which were crude and obvious implements, the screw came from what? Its key feature—and the source of its superior holding power compared to a nail—is the helical thread that winds around the shaft. The helix was neither obvious to conceive nor easy to implement in materials.

Like a genealogist tracing older and older descendants, Rybczynski searches for evidence of the earliest screws and screwdrivers. He profiles key innovators along the way, such as those who created the precision machine tools necessary for mass-manufactured, standardized screws; or inventors that improved on the flathead screw, namely Phillips’ x-shaped socket and Robinson’s square socket. The patent wars of yesteryear were about such things.

As much as One Good Turn is about screws, screwdrivers, and other tools, it is also about an intellectual quest. Unsatisfied with the literature on the subject, Rybczynski narrates his way through libraries and museums, each holding clues to the further history of the screw. He assembles new evidence of screws as fasteners in the Middle Ages. Then he keeps going in search of the ur-screw, back to ancient Greece.

Like the societies that had the button but not the buttonhole, the Greeks (and later the Romans) had the screw but not for fastening. Rather, the Greeks had large-scale helical screws for mechanical use. It was there and then that Rybczynski believes the original insight of the helical screw occurred, likely by the great engineer Archimedes.

So the next time you think about technology and a computer comes to mind, One Good Turn will remind you that technology has a far longer thread back through history.

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