Early Modern Times – a revolution in learning

Early Modern Times - a revolution in learning

Dear readers,

As Halifax joins many other parts of Canada and the world in returning to lockdown, its residents will rely on streaming, dreaming, web-browsing, and catching up on analogue reading to preoccupy themselves indoors. One could do worse for a lockdown hobby than to attempt to build some of the fabulous machines in Agostino Ramelli’s Le diverse et artificiose machine (‘Diverse and artificial machines’, 1588)–including a revolving bookcase, pictured above and featured among other images from the book in this recent Public Domain Review piece. Since some have seen it as a predecessor of modern e-readers, Ramelli’s image may very well foreshadow a revolution in learning.

Ramelli (1531-ca. 1610) was an Italian military engineer who served under the Marquis of Marignano. He then joined the Catholic forces suppressing the Huguenots, and is most famous for Le diverse et artificiose machine, a bilingual text in French and Italian. The work contains about two hundred prints of ingenious devices to utilise wind and especially water power, simulate bird-songs, and of course scroll through multiple tomes with ease. As he puts it, ‘with this machine man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot’, and he is liberal with his self-praise (which we might call spin): ‘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.’ Personally speaking, study is not my usual occupation when suffering through gout attacks. But there have been a few scholarly attempts to build this bookwheel, including by the students of Princeton historian Anthony Grafton (and it apparently sits in his office). A modern replica could even be exhibited at the RoTate Museum in London. Clearly, even though most of the machines were not built in Ramelli’s own lifetime (or afterwards), he sought to Ramelliorate the human condition by fostering literate, wheel-read contemporaries full of revoluminous knowledge.

In this 1970 article, historian of technology Bert Hall describes it thus: ‘The machine resembles a small-scale Ferris wheel, but in place of seats it has shelves for books which are set at an angle of approximately 45 degrees with respect to the floor. This angle is maintained during the rotation of the entire “wheel” about its central axle (parallel to the floor) through a system of epicyclic gearing which causes each shelf to make one counter-rotation for each full turn of the entire device.’ Epicyclic gears are an ancient technology, utilised in the Antikythera, an ancient Greek astronomical calculator whose workings–as reported in this recent article–are closer to being understood. Ramelli may have studied medieval and early modern astrolabes and clocks which used this kind of technology and applied it to his bookwheel. The smoother the gear mechanism, the more Ramellifluous it would be. Less known is that such gears were utilised both recreationally and competitively, the latter in an early modern Tour de France which became the most prominent epicycle race in Europe.

Hall suggests, though, that its innovation was not the very notion of a revolving bookcase, but its horizontal rather than vertical axle. The author (along with initial collaborator Wang Ling) of the multivolume Science and Civilisation of China, Joseph Needham–Cambridge historian, neighbour of Adriane Abbott, and pork-addict (i.e., need ham)–speculated that European revolving bookcases prior to Ramelli’s derived from earlier Chinese inventions of this type. Since at least the 9th century in China, there have been massive structures using gears to turn Buddhist scriptures. One wonders if similar technology could have been used in enviro-friendly gear-powered passenger vehicles, a sort of Sutransportation. In any (book)case, by the Song dynasty (960-1279), rotating bookcases were a prominent feature in Buddhist monasteries. A Muslim traveller in Ming China described a ‘rotation Ming “kiosque”‘ in 1420, a huge 15-story revolving bookcase. Needham surmises that this description may have inspired Western revolving bookcases, which differed in being placed on a horizontal axle–hence its ‘Ferris wheel’ shape–rather than a vertical axle (and so the giant carousel-like structures in China). If this is true, then Ramelli’s vision may be a form of machinoiserie.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Ramellancholic Studies Program

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