Much of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century is attributed to the emerging engineering disciplines of Western Europe; in reality, however, all they did was improve on earlier technology inspired by the Ancient Greeks. Wooden screws were typically used in wine presses in the Mediterranean region, although metal screws were described by the Greek mathematician Archytas, who lived 428 BC to 350 BC. It would be a further two thousand years before metal screws and fixings appeared in western and northern Europe.
The unremarkable history of the humble screw
Wooden screws have been with us for almost three thousand years and were, of course, originally made from wood. Used as fasteners, which were much more robust and secure than nails of the time, they were typically found in simple machinery such as wine presses, olive oil presses and other machinery. Rarely, they were used as fastenings in building ships of the time, although it has been documented by ancient Greek and Roman engineers and scholars.
Screwdrivers actually appeared long before the appearance of metal screws, the latter making sway around the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Screwdrivers were documented as tools and first appeared in Europe sometime in medieval times, and were certainly prominent by the end of the 16th century.
Prior to the advent of mass-produced and engineered screw fittings, fixing and connecting devices such as dowels and pins, mortises and tenons, wedging, nailing and dovetailing would have been prepared by hand by the local carpenter or blacksmith. Each job would have been carried out on site and would have been handmade for the job. There was no standardisation, and, consequently, the processes were detailed and expensive.
Although there is standardisation in screw fittings, it is still an evolving science, and, of course, there are the international standards of metric and imperial measurements to contend with. Every screw has a specific pitch (the spacing between the grooves), which has been arrived at by trial and error over the years. The job they are intended for and the material into which they will be driven will dictate pitch, length and width, as well as the type of head used.
Between the 1860s and 1890s, there was a flurry of activity in patents being applied for different types for screws, such as hexagonal and square heads for external application of spanners and other tools, as well as slots for screwdriver application. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Phillips head was introduced, and in the 1940s, the ISO metric screw thread combined with the Unified Thread Standard were defined and introduced. Continuing development and increased numbers of precision engineering applications will continue to evolve, and I am sure the humble screw will continue to serve us well for many decades, if not centuries, to come.
Mike is a freelance writer and blogger, who has a keen interest in screw fixings and fixtures, due, in part, to his being a keen amateur carpenter and DIY enthusiast.