As much as Frederick Law Olmstead, the hero of Rybczynski's acclaimed previous effort (A Clearing in the Distance, 1999), changed the face of America, the subject of his new study has changed the world.
As the year 2000 approached, Rybczynski was asked to write a short essay on the "best tool" of the millennium for the New York Times Magazine. This assignment sent him off in search of a worthy topic: his first choices turned out to be much more ancient than he had expected, and, after considerable digging, he found himself writing about the screwdriver. Although the screw is much older, the tool with which we usually manipulate it seems to date back to the medieval period. Having ascertained this fact to his satisfaction, the author begins an ambling, rambling discussion of the evolution of this seemingly common household implement. Rybczynski digresses into some amusing and even fascinating sidings in the course of this journey. There is a wonderful mini-biography of Henry Chapman Mercer (a prominent historian of American tools who was also the avatar of the American wing of the Arts and Crafts Movement) and splendid thumbnail sketches of Peter L. Robertson and Henry F. Phillips (who competed to develop a screw and screwdriver that would be more reliable than the simple slotted screw—and, yes, Phillips is the man who gave his name to the cruciform screw and driver we all know). Perhaps the most striking chapter is devoted primarily to the story of Henry Maudslay, a British mechanical genius whose many innovations include the regulating screw and the screw-cutting lathe. At its heart, though, the central thesis is that men like Maudslay and Mercer possess the same kind of intuitive spark as great artists do—a thesis that this book convincingly illustrates.
Charming, witty, and, despite its seemingly desultory structure, quite cunningly thought-out.