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Dead medium: Ramelli's Book Wheel
From: (Dan Howland)

Source(s): *The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli* ("Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine Del Capitano Agostino Ramelli")
Translated by Martha Teach Gnudi; Annotations and Glossary by Eugene S. Ferguson.
Scholar Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976 Reprinted by Dover Books, 1994
(ISBN 0-486-28180-9)

Agostino Ramelli (1531-1608?) was an Italian engineer who served under King Henry III of France and Poland. Many of his inventions were military in nature == scissoring battering rams, mechanical bridges, and screwjacks to force apart bars of a castle's portcullis, for example. In this book of nearly two hundred engravings, there is only one data access device: the Book Wheel.

Ramelli says:

"This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed 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."

The drawing shows a gouty scholar sitting before what looks for all the world like a Ferris Wheel with eight lecterns in place of seats. As he spins this huge device (perhaps six feet in diameter), a series of gears attached to the axle keeps the lecterns upright.

It surely is a neat gadget, but perhaps someone of intelligence can tell me how it could be justified as a space-saver. A bookshelf in the background of the illustration holds twenty-three books, and most of them appear to be within arm's reach of a seated man.

To see the engraving, go to:

Another interesting Book Wheel link is:

"Ramelli may have been the first to design a workstation for scholars, something that the Internet is now bringing us. In 1945 Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the United States during World War II, published a seminal article that described a Memex, another version of the Scholar's Book Wheel. While his design relied on microfilm, the goal of having a library at your fingertips is the same. Click here for the text of 'As We May Think.'"

Dan Howland (

Journal of Ride Theory, P.O. Box 2044, Portland, OR 97208-2044