16th Century Bookwheels, the E‑Readers of the Renaissance, Get Brought to Life by 21st Century Designers

Most of us, through our com­put­ers or our even our phones, have access to more books than we could ever read in one life­time. That cer­tain­ly would­n’t have been the case in, say, the mid­dle ages, when books — assum­ing you belonged to the elite who could read them in the first place — were rare and pre­cious objects. Both books and lit­er­a­cy became more com­mon dur­ing the Renais­sance, though acquain­tance with both could still be con­sid­ered the sign of a poten­tial­ly seri­ous schol­ar. And for the most seri­ous Renais­sance schol­ars of all, Ital­ian mil­i­tary engi­neer Agosti­no Ramel­li designed the book­wheel, an elab­o­rate mechan­i­cal device allow­ing the user to turn from one book to anoth­er in rel­a­tive­ly quick suc­ces­sion.

First drawn by Ramel­li in 1588 (and pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture in 2017) but nev­er actu­al­ly con­struct­ed by him, the book­wheel has attract­ed renewed atten­tion in the 21st cen­tu­ry. “In 2018, a group of under­grad­u­ate engi­neer­ing stu­dents at the Rochester Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy set out to build two,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Claire Voon. “They began by dili­gent­ly study­ing the Ital­ian engineer’s illus­tra­tion, then pro­cured his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate mate­ri­als, such as Euro­pean beech and white oak.

With the help of mod­ern pow­er tools and process­es, such as com­put­er mod­el­ing and CNC rout­ing, they brought it to life.” You can see the RIT book­wheels under con­struc­tion and in action in the video above. (Its schemat­ics, near-impos­si­bly com­plex by the stan­dards of Ramel­li’s day, are also avail­able at RIT’s web site.)

Oth­ers have also brought Ramel­li’s design into real­i­ty. In the video just above, for exam­ple, we have writer Joshua Foer (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here for his work on the sci­ence of mem­o­riza­tion) tak­ing his own repro­duc­tion for a spin. “It’s a fer­ris wheel for books,” Foer explains, “so that a schol­ar can have eight books in front of them, sort of like tabbed brows­ing before tabbed brows­ing.” The device’s cher­ry wood and laser-cut gears are cer­tain­ly hand­some, but what of its prac­ti­cal­i­ty? “I often read mul­ti­ple books at one time, and this way I can have them all open in front of me.” Most all of us start more books than we can fin­ish, and as we attempt to read them all in par­al­lel, occa­sion­al­ly one or two do get for­got­ten. Hence one advan­tage, even in our mod­ern times, of Ramel­li’s book wheel: any book placed on it becomes as unig­nor­able as the machine itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

How to Mem­o­rize an Entire Chap­ter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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