Ramelli's Bookwheel

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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)

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Ramelli's Bookwheel (Gnudi)

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)

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Ramelli (Gnudi

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 Design

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 on a vertical axis. 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.

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Another version of the bookwheel (Hall)

Epicyclic gears

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.”

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Epicyclic gears (Reti)

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?

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.

Today's Influence

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.

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.

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MAC Screenshot (Procida).

Dual Screens

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.

Car Transmissions

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)


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