Reading machines — past and future

A post on early modern machines on Peacay’s award-winning blog BibliOdyssey reminded me of an early modern reading machine. It was designed by Agostino Ramelli who published the idea in his Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostina Ramelli in 1588. It was apparently never built in the early modern period itself, but rumour has it that Daniel Libeskind built a version for the Biennale in Venice in 1985. The machine consists of a big wheel that can house several books, and which can be turned in order to bring the right book in front of the reader’s eyes. Ramelli writes:

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. 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.

Some see this reading machine as the forerunner of the modern computer. The funny thing is that the latest developments in the field of computer screens are paradoxically directed towards the emulation of the old-fashioned sheet of paper. Philips and Polymer Vision are developing the Readius: a screen so thin and flexible that you can roll it up and put it in your pocket, like a scroll of paper. Ideal for reading e-books on.

Update: I found a blog on the future of the book: if:book.


13 thoughts on “Reading machines — past and future

  1. Aw thanks for the kind words Kristene. By way of a treat, if you like machines, have a look at this page. This fellow is planning or doing his PhD on something to do with renaissance machinery and has a large and amazing set of machine images.

    He doesn’t seem to have an email address and although I’ve linked to his site (and even asked for his advice in a post) he either hasn’t visited or just hasn’t commented.

    Anyway, I had vaguely thought about making a post from this page but I kind of wanted to ask him if it was ok first. I’ll keep thinking about it. Maybe….one day I will – I mean, he has posted it onto the big reading machine hasn’t he?

    And excellent post!! (I have to say that)
    ;- )

  2. Wow, that’s quite a treasure trove, thanks! I understand your dilemma…strange to find a set of wonderful images online, but no-one to contact about them. I’ve never seen a blog without a comment function (if he had one I could help him with that German title, for one…). I’d say — since the images are online already, and as long as you politely link to his site — go for it, Peacay!

  3. You know, I wonder if he’s simply overlooked putting his email on there, or if it’s hidden somewhere obscure – I’ve seen at least one post in his archives that invites people to contact him… Anyway, because I’m incurably inquisitive, I googled his full name and found an email address you could try: george_goodall[at]

    But you could also try something like george[at] – he may well have some kind of email set up for the domain.

  4. Sharon, you are a marvel! I sent him a translation of the German entry at the yahoo address — and Peacay, I told him you would love to hear from him at your blog… Fingers crossed!

  5. Super Sleuths! I’ll be sure to cover my trails if i commit any crimes.
    Anyway, it wasn’t that important. It’s just that sometimes (well…often) I find these weird things and it would be nice to know if there’s any background. Half the time I sit here scratching my head wondering what I’ve found.

  6. Wow. I had no idea that my collection of machine drawings would find such an audience. And I have to thank Kristine for tracking me down. My apologies to all for restricting comments, and hiding my email address.

    Some backstory: I put that collection together in the two days leading up to the birth of our son in early November. Needless to say, I’ve been a bit distracted since.

    On to Ramelli. He was a pretty cool cat. I’ve put together a brief biography if anyone’s interested. His revolving bookcase was an anomaly of the Diverse et Artificiose Machine. Most of the work is devoted to means of raising water and siege machinery.

    There are a lot of odd little factoids swirling around Ramelli’s life. Although he lived and worked in France, he was Italian. He hailed from a town on the shores of Lake Lugano. Twelve years after his birth, Domenico Fontana was born in a town on the other side of the lake. Fontana later became an architect in Rome and is famous for his Della Transportatione dell Obelisco, the only machine book to appear in Galileo’s library.

    Ramelli was also involved in a notorious case of plagiarism. It’s likely that Ambroise Bachot–his assistant–stole many of Ramelli’s fortification designs and published them in his own works: Le Timon and Le Gouvernail. Despite this gaff, Bachot lauded Ramelli as the “new Archimedes.” I’m not sure if this epithet was a compliment given the Aristotelian bent of the time!

    On the issue of Ramelli’s book wheel, I only know of one that was definitely built. Dante Gnudi–husband of Martha Teach Gnudi–built a model in the late 1960s. For details, see:

    Hall, Bert S. “A Revolving Bookcase by Agostino Ramelli.” Technology and Culture 11(1970): 389-400.

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  9. “It is in the homes of the idlest men that you find the biggest libraries” — that is definitely the quote of the day. If you didn’t know that the bookshelf as we know it only originated in the seventeenth century, and that in the sixteenth century books used to be stored with their spines to the wall, do follow Natalie’s link! I love this kind of material cultural history, and I’m going to look out for the History of the Pencil as well!

  10. Dear colleague,

    Illustration of : Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostina Ramelli in 1588
    Do you know if this picture is out of copyright? I’d like to use it on the front cover of a book of poems.

    john Williams
    England UK

  11. Dear John Williams,

    No, I’m sorry, I do not know about the copyright status of the image. Perhaps you could asks the publishers of the book that Natalie Bennett refers to above, The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski, which apparently contains the image of Ramelli’s book wheel. I looked the book up on Amazon, where the Vintage Paperback edition has a “look inside” option (the hardback was published by Knopf). The list of illustrations states:

    115. Book wheel, by Agostino Ramelli. From The Various and Ingenious Machines by Agostino Ramelli.

    Ramelli’s book was translated and published by Johns Hopkins UP in 1976, and reprinted by Dover Books in 1994.

    I hope that gives you enough leads to find out about the copyright.

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