Jar of screws and nails

Book review: ‘Nuts and Bolts’ by Roma Agrawal

Image credit: Robert Luca/Dreamstime

A look at seven small and apparently insignificant inventions that changed the world.

The idea that small and simple things can be big and complex things in disguise is one that’s fascinated novelists for centuries. In Jane Austen’s world, for example, the merest of imagined slights can have the most far-reaching and dramatic of outcomes, leaving us wondering just how crucial the minutiae of manners can be in constructing a wider social context.

It is this notion that forms the core of Roma Agrawal’s non-fictional examination of the engineering fundamentals behind the physical world we live in today. In ‘Nuts and Bolts’ (Hachette, £22, ISBN 9781529340075), Agrawal’s Seven Wonders of the Ancient World aren’t grand constructions, but the humble nail, wheel, spring, magnet, lens, string and pump. Perhaps not so humble after all.

As frameworks for expressing the central ubiquity of engineering in our everyday life go, ‘Nuts and Bolts’ hits the nail on the head. And so it is fitting that Agrawal’s first subject should be what, on the surface at least, appears to be our most obvious and trivial invention: the nail. As she observes, even in today’s world where much of what goes on is tucked away in the black boxes of microelectronics, nails are everywhere. But just like the algorithms that power the integrated circuits in our smartphones, they’re a hidden technology, literally holding everything together. What did we do before nails?

Well, she says, everything we made was fashioned out of a single piece of engineering material. A toppled tree trunk spanning a stream was our bridge, while the cave was our home. The nail, along with its derivatives – such as the rivet, screw and bolt – meant that we could expand our horizons by joining things together. Another of her subjects – string – helped in a similar way, although this was a technology we could entangle and wind to bind a shard of flint to an axe handle, or adapt into products as diverse as clothing and guitar strings.

The idea for ‘Nuts and Bolts’ has been with the author most of her life, and she recalls her childhood in New York where she whiled away her time decoding the “sheer scale and drama” of the skyscrapers that surrounded her. This curiosity extended to cars, computers and coffee machines, leading her down a path not only to a successful career in engineering, but also towards a deep understanding of the evolution of these early innovations that would become fascinating chapters in a book about who we were, are and will be as humans.

While it’s tempting to think of ‘Nuts and Bolts’ as an examination of old-fashioned things relegated to rusty tobacco tins in sheds, it’s also worth keeping in mind that the phrase ‘nuts and bolts’ has passed into our everyday language to signify what’s really important about any situation.

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