Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renaissance Invention Created to Make Books Portable & Help Scholars Study Several Books at Once (1588)

Devo­tees of print may object, but we read­ers of the 21st cen­tu­ry enjoy a great priv­i­lege in our abil­i­ty to store a prac­ti­cal­ly infi­nite num­ber of dig­i­tized books on our com­put­ers. What’s more, those com­put­ers have them­selves shrunk down to such com­pact­ness that we can car­ry them around day and night with­out dis­com­fort. This would hard­ly have worked just forty years ago, when books came only in print and a seri­ous com­put­er could still fill a room. The paper book may remain rea­son­ably com­pet­i­tive even today with the con­ve­nience refined over hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years, but its first hand­made gen­er­a­tions tend­ed toward lav­ish, weighty dec­o­ra­tion and for­mats that now look com­i­cal­ly over­sized.

These posed real prob­lems of unwield­i­ness, one solu­tion to which took the unlike­ly form of the book­wheel. In 1588’s The Var­i­ous and Inge­nious Machines of Cap­tain Agosti­no Ramel­li, the Ital­ian engi­neer of that name “out­lined his vision for a wheel-o-books that would employ the log­ic of oth­er types of wheel (water, Fer­ris, ‘Price is Right’, etc.) to rotate books clock­work-style before a sta­tion­ary user,” writes the Atlantic’s Megan Gar­ber.

The design used “epicyclic gear­ing — a sys­tem that had at that point been used only in astro­nom­i­cal clocks — to ensure that the shelves bear­ing the wheel’s books (more than a dozen of them) would remain at the same angle no mat­ter the wheel’s posi­tion. The seat­ed read­er could then employ either hand or foot con­trols to move the desired book pret­ty much into her (or, much more like­ly, his) lap.” This rotat­ing book­case gave 16th cen­tu­ry read­ers the abil­i­ty to read heavy books in place, with far greater ease.

In his 1588  book, Ramel­li added:

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. Moveover, 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.

Inven­tors all over Europe cre­at­ed their own ver­sions of the book­wheel dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies, four­teen exam­ples of which still exist. (The one pic­tured in the mid­dle of the post, built around 1650, now resides in Lei­den.) Even archi­tect Daniel Libe­skind has built one, based on Ramel­li’s design and exhib­it­ed in his home­land at the 1986 Venice Bien­nale. Alas, after it went to Gene­va for an exhi­bi­tion at the Palais Wil­son, it fell vic­tim to a ter­ror­ist fire bomb­ing. Inno­va­tion, it seems, will always have its ene­mies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Jacobean Trav­el­ing Library: The 17th Cen­tu­ry Pre­cur­sor to the Kin­dle

The Art of Mak­ing Old-Fash­ioned, Hand-Print­ed Books

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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