Behold, the Kindle of the 16th Century

By Megan Garber

Just one of the "various and ingenious machines" of Captain Agostino Ramelli

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Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the defining features of Kindles and iPads and their fellow e-readers is their ability to store tons of books in the same place, at the same time. Which means that, thanks to these quintessentially twenty-first-century technologies, we are newly encouraged to consume our books not as long meals, but as occasional snacks: a few nibbles of Moby-Dick here, a few bites of Bossypants there. Under e-readers' influence, the linear project of book-reading -- from page 1 to page 501, sequentially -- has shifted to something much more chaotic, much more casual, much more accommodating to whimsy and whim.

Literary restlessness, though, dates back much further than the 21st century. It dates back, at least, to the 16th -- to the Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli, and to his desire for a reading interface that would allow for book-borne snacking. Ramelli, who spent his professional career creating siege machinery for the military, wanted to develop a device that would allow a reader to reference multiple books at (pretty much) the same time -- a desire made especially practical given how large and heavy books were back then. 

In his own book, published in 1588 and modestly titled The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, the designer outlined his vision for a wheel-o-books that would employ the logic of other types of wheel (water, Ferris, "Price is Right", etc.) to rotate books clockwork-style before a stationary user. Ramelli planned to use epicyclic gearing -- a system that had at that point been used only in astronomical clocks -- to ensure that the shelves bearing the wheel's books (more than a dozen of them) would remain at the same angle no matter the wheel's position. The seated reader could then employ either hand or foot controls to move the desired book pretty much into her (or, much more likely, his) lap.

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Libeskind's "Reading Machine," 1986

Ramelli, apparently and unfortunately, never actually built his ahead-of-its-time mechanical iPad. But its design was replicated by succeeding generations of engineers, artists, and book-lovers. In 1986, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, architect Daniel Libeskind created a version that was reverse-engineered from Ramelli's rendering -- a design he titled the "Reading Machine." And in 2012, the French artist Léa Lagasse created her own version of the "machine" as a performance piece. This device was constructed of plywood and populated entirely with books by Nabokov. Its name? "The Awaken Dreamer."

Update: Rob Meyer, Atlantic Tech contributor and general awesome-izer, informs me that Princeton professor Anthony Grafton has an actual book wheel in his office. And it is wondrous.

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