July 10, 2020

Engineering nerds build replica of Renaissance book-reading wheel; internet agog


Among the many devices designed by the 16th-century scientist and gentleman scholar Agostino Ramelli was an ingenious, if essentially useless, machine: a rotating wheel with small shelves for books, allowing the reader to cycle through multiple books.

Like many fanciful Renaissance inventions, Ramelli’s bookwheel was never built … until now. In 2018 a group of engineering students at the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology, consulting Ramelli’s four-century-old plans, made the Italian’s vision into reality.

Writing in Atlas Obscura, Claire Voon described how the students

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.

The resulting machines—the group eventually manufactured two of the behemoths—weighed 600 pounds. Both machines remain in Rochester, New York, one at RIT and the other at the University of Rochester.

Our initial reaction, of course, is to picture Ramelli’s machine filled with Melville House books. The students’ version has eight slots, so we quickly enter a reverie wherein we must decide which eight MHP titles will make the cut … the very definition of a dilemma …

Back on earth, we read more about the machine’s historical context. “Through the 16th century, books are beginning to talk to each other a lot more—one might reference another—so a bookwheel could have been convenient,” said RIT’s Steven Galbraith. “Some scholars say it’s the beginning of the idea of hypertext, the idea that a reader can sit in one spot and have access to multiple texts at once.”

This last might be a bit of a stretch; to our way of thinking, the bookwheel, as charming as it is, was more of a dead end in the ever-forking tree of technological innovation, rather than an avatar or pre-cursor.

Regardless of its teleological status, the machine remains a delightful accomplishment and a testament to good ol’ vim and vigor, not to mention mathematical prowess. The plans the students made for its construction have been posted online. To our eye, they are a visually pleasing analogue to the Renaissance spirit that so moved Ramelli and other thinkers like him. If you kind of squint, you can almost imagine the circles and numbers and lines being scratched out on parchment, rather than made out of pixels. It is a slight visual spark, leaping soundlessly across the centuries.




Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.