‘The turn of the Screw’

by Ann-Marie Peckham

If the title made you think that today’s blog was going to be about the ghost story published by Henry James in 1898 I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s actually about the wooden Archimedes screw found in our superstore (while not as scary as James’ story, this IS just as interesting…I promise!)

Archimedes (c.287-212 BC)

The screw takes its name from Archimedes (c.287-212 BC), a scientist and engineer from Syracuse, Sicily, which at this time was part of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). Archimedean screws were originally used to move water from a lower level to a higher level. This was done by basically what is a giant corkscrew entwined around a central cylindrical shaft which was inside a hollow pipe. Once the end of the screw was placed in the ground or water a turning handle was used to push the screw down and scoop up the contents which would be sent back up the screw itself until it poured out the top. These devices were used to  help irrigate crops, drain water from mines and from the bilges of ships.

How an Archimedes screw works

Much later, the artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) worked on improving the Archimedean screw in the hope that he would be able to create devices that had continual motion. He hoped to do this by pouring water in the top of the screw to force it to constantly turn (see picture below).

Da Vinci's Improvements

Da Vinci hoped that this would ultimately help with the running of machinery and the lifting of heavy items. Sadly, in 1500 he stopped his experiments feeling they were unachievable and so he never realised his dream which is in fact in use today! In recent times screws like the one in our Superstore were used for reclaiming waterlogged land in the Netherlands and helping restabilising the Leaning tower of Pisa!

Our Archimedes Screw used at Dilham Brickworks.

Our Archimedes Screw used at Dilham Brickworks.

While the screw in our Superstores does not date from the time of Archimedes or Da Vinci it is no less important! Measuring 13ft 6 inches, angled at roughly 30 degrees and driven by a steam engine, it was used for raising water from a pit to the clay beds at Dilham Brick works, near North Walsham, which closed around 1920.

Fact of the Day!  The principle used in an Archimedes screw is also used in Chocolate fountains!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to ‘The turn of the Screw’

  1. Zach Liollio says:

    I would love some more information about these screws. We found an extant one abandoned in a rice field in South Carolina. I have photos of it if you’re interested; probably from the 1880’s or 90’s.


    • I’m afraid we don’t have any more information than what the blog can offer at the moment. If you’re ever in Norfolk come along to the Norfolk Collections Centre and you can see the Archimedes Screw in its full glory! We’re open 16th-20th Feb.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s