From Dead Media ArchiveRamelli's Bookwheel presents an interesting historical paradox. On the one hand, it demonstrates an immense technological breakthrough that combines engineering techniques (epicylic gears, horizontal axle, shelves that don't drop objects when spun around) that had immense ramifications on later conceptions of how to view and access information (the ability to easily cycle through various texts or windows of information) and incorporating epicyclic gears in more objects besides clocks, to name a couple of examples. On the other hand, it is an example of sheer engineering arrogance on the part of Ramelli. The Bookwheel, as it is presented by Ramelli himself, is a testament to his own self indulgence. Much like a Guitar Virtuoso, like Jimi Hendrix or Yngwie Malmsteen, who uses guitar solos as opportunities to demonstrate the limits of their manual dexterity and speed (often at the expense of good taste), Ramelli’s Bookwheel is an impractical showcase of Ramelli’s ability to implement complex engineering techniques to accomplish tasks that could have been done much more simply and efficiently. In fact, the Bookwheel’s ultimate impracticality is demonstrated by the fact that it was never constructed. Ramelli himself never made any actual specifications for how it should have been made. Elevated by its elegance and innovationa nd damned by its impracticality and excess, Ramelli's Bookwheel is a fascinating example of a medium that was dead simultaneously as it was alive. It was influential without ever actually existing.
Agostino Ramelli was born in Como, Italy in 1531. He grew up amidst war and political turmoil. Wars for independence as well as wars for position and power occurred all around him. Growing up, he was trained in the arts of war and mathematics by warlord Gian Giacomo de’ Medici. He soon developed into a key military engineer in the Italian military where he provided his expertise in fortification and machinery used for assaulting enemy cities. He was involved in the battles and was even captured by an opposing army once. The French King Henry III hired Ramelli briefly. “The Great Engineer”, as he was called, served the French magistrate until the death of Henry III. Coming back to work for his native Italy for some time, died somewhere in his late 70s. Although the date of his death is unknown, property documents with his signatures have been found dated as late as August of 1608, although it is not believed that he lived for terribly long after that. (Gnudi 11-19; Gille 199-200)
The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli
Agostino Ramelli wrote and published “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli” in 1588 in both French and Italian. Printed on 195 silver plates, Ramelli’s book illustrated inventions and mechanisms for raising water, milling grain, and war time machines. Noted for originality, these inventions are also known for being virtually unrealistic. Other inventors of this time care to show off their talents in creative engineering. “”Besson, Ramelli, and a few others have given us machines invented by them on paper, but few of them can be at all effective,” said Salomon de Caus, an early seventeenth-century engineer (Gille 199). They emphasized play and amusement. Another problem with the book is that it made it difficult for anyone to reproduce any of the actual machines or wheels/pulleys. There were no instructions on how to build these inventions nor were their any sorts of measurements or lists of materials included. One would have to study the sketch shown and the bit of text Ramelli provided. (Gille 199; Gnudi 15-17)
The Book That Never Happened
He drew sketches in preparation for another book on fortifications, but “wrote with bitterness and…disdain of the trusted member of his household who ‘…appearing to praise by giving me the title of expert…furtively robbed me of many special drawings…an published them as his own.’ (Gnudi 17)”. Some experts believe that person to be Ambroise Bachot, an architect and engineer to Henry IV whose work has always been related to Ramelli’s, although Ramelli never named his suspected thief. (Gnudi 17-19)
Ramelli’s revolving bookcase had a circular structure that was built around a horizontal axis, which meant that the shelves on the wheel could be rotated up or down. This gave it the look of a Vetruvian Water wheel (or a ferris wheel) as opposed to the merry-go-round design that had been popular earlier. Each shelf is set at an angle of 45 degrees with respect to the floor at all times. (Hall 389) This prevents the books from falling of the shelves during rotation. This design was also capable of saving space because all the information was moved vertically. This choice actually following the western tradition of axle design, although Ramelli was unique for applying this method to the book wheel. (Hall 390)
The Chinese revolving bookshelf and early European bookshelves
Ramelli’s use of a horizontal axle was in contrast to the Chinese model of rotating bookshelves which work with a vertical axle. The earlier Chinese Bookcases dated as far back as the 6th century and they were massive structures as opposed to the Book Wheel designed by Ramelli. (Hall 390-1). This model has been speculated to have come about due to the translation work done by Buddhists in China at the time (Needham 553-554).
Ramelli’s wheel also differed greatly from earlier European made devices. An earlier model designed by Bocaccio during the early 15th Century consisted of a round table that could be raised or lowered by rotating a central screw that is fixed to the base. The main purpose seemed to focused on raising or lowering the table between eye level and average table height. (Clark 307)
Other examples demonstrated the ability to be manipulated with or without the ability to adjust the height and or the position of objects on the table.
Almost all of these however required the device to be turned along a vertical axis (meaning the movement took place on a horizontal plane, excluding the ability to increase or decrease its height.
One of the more ingenious parts of the construction of the wheel was Ramelli’s incorporation of Epicyclic gears. This helped keep the angles of each of the shelves constant with respect to the floor, so that any book resting on a shelf would not fall off as one spinned the device. (Hall 392) The basic concept behind epicyclic gears is that it consists of several jagged edged gears (with “teeth”) that stem from a central position. The gears vary in radius. The motions of the gears can be described by a caption written for a prototype of a model of Dante Gnudi in folio 112r of Codex Madrid I.:
“Wheel a turns to the right. And b to the left, and c also to the right, wheel m turns to the left, that is, opposite to a, because even if the axle of a is square, it is round inside wheel m. Wheel b has no axle, while one arm of the axle of wheel m rotates and turns b and c around a. the last revolves in the direction opposite to b.”
Although seemingly convoluted, the epicyclic gear model was capable of achieving the feat of maintaining the angles of the bookshelves on Ramelli’s wheel at a constant 45 degree angle in relation to the floor. This might not have been possible with a simpler axle design.
It is fascinating that he used this particular gear system, which featured a set of Idler gears that were needed to reverse the rotation of the outer set of gears. (Hall 396) This particular particular type of gearing had existed in ancient times, for example in the Antikythera machine, which was, if the reconstruction of it was accurate, an ancient greek predecessor to the computer which incorporated this method of using gears in parallel motion. It was also featured in 14th century geared astrolabes. . It is, however, not clear how Ramelli came into contact with this particular principle of gear design. Some scholars believe that he adapted it from horology or from a clock that he might have come across, which featured the system, and then applied it to his book wheel. (Hall 394) Then there is also the importance of Ramelli’s predecessor, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The Da Vinci Connection?
Many parallels have been drawn between the work of Ramelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. It isn’t that far of a leap considering that the two were both interested in engineering and Da Vinci did have a major impact on those who came after him. Scholars have made a particular connection between them because of their shared interest in epicycle gear trains.
Leonardo had experimented with the notion of utilizing the epicycle gear system for some unknown device. As Ladislao Reti points out, Leanardo’s design is very similar to the one Ramelli intended to use for his bookwheel. The difference was that Da Vinci’s outer gears did not match the central gear in terms of the amount of teeth they had. Also, unlike Ramelli, Da Vinci did not have a specific device in mind as he was making this model. He was more interested in the actual mechanism rather than a specific use for it. (Reti 578) Da Vinci also was considering a manner in which to have the elements of the gear train maintain at a constant angle relative to the floor. (Reti 579)
However, Ramelli’s use of the Epicyclic gear system does not necessarily mean that he was copying or deriving his invention from Da Vinci. It is possible that the two were both just studying the knowledge that had been accumulating since ancient times. (Reti 580)
One could go even further and say that Ramelli was neither completely original in his ideas nor was he merely copying the work of those who came before him. He was, as Reti pointed out, incorporating “not only his own ideas and fantasies but also the sound technical tradition of his time and the experience and dreams of his predecessors in the invention of machines" (581).
Design for Showmanship’s Sake?
Excerpt from Ramelli's book, The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli, specifically the description he gives of the Bookwheel:
“This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.
This wheel is made in the manner shown, that is, it is constructed so that when the books are laid on its lecterns they never fall or move from the place where they are laid even when the wheel is turned and revolved all the way around. Indeed, they will always remain in the same position and will be displayed to the reader in the same way as they were laid on their small lecterns, without any need to tie or hold them with anything. This wheel may be made as large or small as desired, provided the master craftsman who constructs it observes the proportions of each part of its components. He can do this very easily if he studies carefully all the parts of these small wheels of ours and the other devices in this machine. These parts are made in sizes to proportionate to each other. To give a fuller understanding and comprehension to anyone who wishes to make and operate this machine, I have shown here separately and uncovered all the devices needed for it, so that anyone may understand them better and make use of them for his needs.” (508)
One of the main complaints made about Ramelli is that he made his devices, like the bookwheel, more complex than they needed to be. He would utilize “ gears to perform even such tasks as converting rotary to reciprocal motion, where a simple crankshaft would do” (Hall 392). There was an inherent artistic arrogance involved in both his design and in his presentation of it. He would speak about the bookwheel in his own book in hyperbolic terms as well as delving into a condescending tone towards the reader. This seems to be typical for him and other authors of “Theater of Machines” type books. The goal was to show off the ‘virtuosity’ of their engineering skill (much like a guitarist would during a solo) in terms of their ability to manipulate systems to accomplish extraordinary feats. (Hall 392) Ramelli did not even include any specific measurements in his design. This isn’t to suggest that Ramelli was untalented and simply full of outlandish ideas. That wasn’t the case. But to an extent, his ego came to the surface more often than the rational practical ability to help humanity.
Ramelli’s bookwheel was for the information savvy people of the day. Today there is technology that allows us to cross reference more things quicker, observe multiple things at once, and feed our ADD minds.
Conceived by Vannevar Bush in the 1940's, the memex continued the same logic as the Bookwheel, in terms of being able to keep track of information and be able to easily access that information while researching. The memex was essentially conceived as a self contained research library contained within a desk. On top of the desk are translucent screens for reading the material being studied. There is also a keyboard and sets of buttons and levers. One part of the desk is for storage of information using microfilm. (Bush 149) The user is able to store books under code numbers for easy access. They can also use the keyboard to skip through pages. (Bush 150). This descendant of the bookwheel was the predecessor of hyperlinks and works using the concept of associative thought. (Bush 148)
Computer Screen Viewing
In today's age, we want to be able to multitask as much as possible. When using computers, it is no different. It used to be that you needed to open up separate windows for each function, program, or web page on your screen. If you wanted to view a different window, you had to click and drag it away or minimize it. Then web browsers made it possible for multiple tabs to be opened up in the same internet window, making it easier and faster to view multiple web sites at once. Now you can cross reference windows even quicker. Both Mac and PC operating systems have functions that clear away the screen, moving all the windows to the edges so you can view your desktop with the push of a key or swipe of a mousepad. Or you can view all of your open windows and programs and documents at one time so to be able to switch from window to window faster. This makes it even possible to view multiple pictures and/or videos at the same time.
The information technology and need for a vast view of things has called for computers to be capable of being set up with multiple screens. Some people have two, three, and sometimes even four screens paneled side by side to give the user a wider, more vast view of their computer activities. More extreme examples of multi-monitor set-ups can be seen in fictional settings such as The Dark Knight, where Batman has a large amount of computer screens to form a large image or virtual workspace.
Ramelli's epicyclic gear train used in his bookwheel to keep the books in place while rotating have been used in modern engineering. "The trasnmission gears of the Model T Ford automobile, for example, were epicyclic." (Gnudi 558)
- Aiken, John, William Enfield, Nicholson, Thomas Morgan, and William Johnston. General Biography: Or, Lives, Critical and Historical, of the Most Eminent Persons of All Ages, Countries, Conditions, and Professions, Arranged According to Alphabetical Order. G.G. and J. Robinson, 1807.
- Bush, Vannevar. As We May Think. 1945
- Clark, John Willis. The Care of Books. Cambridge, 1909. P. 307, fig. 148
- Gille, Bertrand. Engineers of the Renaissance. 1966. 199-200.
- Gnudi, Martha T., trans. The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli (1588). Great Britain: Johns Hopkins University, 1976.
- Hall, Bert S. and Ramelli, Agostino. A Revolving Bookcase by Agostino Ramelli. Technology and Culture, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Jul., 1970), pp. 389-400
- Ladislao Reti. Leonardo and Ramelli. Technology and Culture, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 577-605
- Memex picture. http://www.kantl.be/ctb/vanhoutte/teach/slides/hcl0502.htm
- Needham, Joseph and Ling, Wang. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge, 1965.
- Platts, John. A new universal biography, chronologically arranged; containing interesting accounts, critical accounts, critical and historical, of the lives and characters, labours and actions, of eminent persons, in all ages and countries, conditions and professions,. Sherwood, Jones, and Co., 1826.
- Procida Jr., William P. MAC Screenshot. 3 Dec. 2008.