Agostino Ramelli was born in 1531, at either a small town named Ponte Tresa or the village of Mesenzana, both located in modern-day Northern Italy. For a significant portion of his childhood, he served under Gian Giacomo de’ Medici, Marquis of Marignano. During this time, he was not only trained in the art of war but also received an education in classical studies and mathematics (Gnudi 1994). As an adult, Ramelli was a military engineer. His expertise can be seen in his book Le diverse et artificiose machine, published in 1588. Ramelli’s text is touted as “the most elaborate and one of the earliest of a long line of pictorial technical books which have mirrored and encouraged the development of machines over the last four hundred years” (Gnudi 1994). The book itself illustrates the craft of Renaissance engravers, paper-makers, printers, and binders. There was only one edition of the original work (Gnudi 1994), and it stood apart by the fact that it was published in both French and Italian within the same volume. It is both an artistic and intellectual achievement, containing the drawing and plans of Ramelli’s several ingenious machines, including the bookwheel.
Also known as a reading wheel, the device allowed its users to sit in front of the wheel, one at a time, and access eight lecterns or shelves containing different texts by rotating the wheels. The earliest use of machines for such purposes was in China around the 6th century for house scriptures, Tripitaka, in Buddhist temples (Hall 1970, 390-391). It is uncertain when revolving cases were introduced in the west, but it was probably between the 1300s and 1400s (Hall 1970, 391). However, one main difference between the machines used in China and the one designed by Ramelli was the rotation of the axis. The Chinese machines typically used vertical axles to rotate in a horizontal plane, whereas Ramelli’s utilized an opposite system (Hall 1970, 396). By turning the conventional vertical axis revolving in a horizontal plane on its side, the same purpose can be served while taking up less space (Hall 1970, 390). Another example of a vertical revolving machine is the Vitruvian waterwheel (Gnudi 1994), although it cannot be certain if Ramelli was inspired by the waterwheel.
Another key difference between Ramelli’s bookwheel and its Chinese predecessor is the use of epicyclic gearing. The epicyclic gear train “remained parallel with itself as it moved around the central gear” (Gnudi 1994, 558). This system enables the book to rest at a constant angle on the lectern without falling off as the wheel turns. The angles of the bookshelves are kept constant with respect to the ground (Hall 1970, 392). The gearing could have potentially been inspired by clocks (Hall 1970, 394). During the Middle Ages, this type of gearing was not extensively used, but it could be seen in elaborately constructed astronomical clocks “where it was utilized to imitate mechanically the motion of the planets in the Ptolemaic system” (Hall 1970, 393). Clocks of this fashion were also made during Ramelli’s time (16th century). One example is the planetary clock built by Eberhart Baldewin in 1561 for Wilhelm IV, Landgraf of Hesse (Hall 1970, 394), pictured below. It is currently preserved in Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel in Germany.
Ramelli’s bookwheel, with its unique design and complex inner-workings, along with his other devices found in Le diverse et artificiose machine are important as they enhance our understanding of the technological past and pave the way for the study of early modern technology (Hall 1970, 400).
To Cite this Page
MacLaren, Katharine. 2018. “Agostino Ramelli and His Bookwheel.” KGCOE and Cary Projects. https://caryprojects.wordpress.com/agostino-ramelli-and-his-bookwheel/. Accessed [insert current date].
Hall, Bert S. “A Revolving Bookcase by Agostino Ramelli.” Technology and Culture 11, no. 3 (July 1970): 389-400.
Gnudi, Martha Teach. The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli: A Classic Sixteenth-Century Illustrated Treatise on Technology New York: Dover, 1994.