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Agostini Ramelli Describes a Renaissance Information Retrieval Device and Other Machines (1588)


In Le diverse et artificose machine, elegantly published from his home in Paris in 1588, Agostino Ramelli described and illustrated, among numerous remarkable inventions, a revolving book wheel. Ramelli's book wheel was one of the earliest "information retrieval" devices. He wrote:

"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. Moveover, 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.

"This wheel is made in the manner shown, that is, it is contructed so that when the books are laid on its lecturns they never fall or move from the place where they are laid even as the wheel is turned and revolved all the way around. Indeed, they will always remain in the same position and will be displayed to the reader in the same way as they were laid on their small lecturns, without any need to tie or hold them with anything. This wheel may be made as large or small as desired, provided the master craftsman who constructs it observes the proportions of each part of its components. He can do this very easily if he studies carefully all the parts of these small wheels of ours and the other devices in this machine. These parts are made in sizes proportionate to each other. To give fuller understanding and comprehension to anyone who wishes to make and operate this machine, I have shown here separately and uncovered all the devices needed for it, so that anyone may understand them better and make use of them for his needs." (Ramelli, The Various Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli. A classic Sixteenth-Century Illustrated Treatise on Technology. Translated from the Italian and French with a biographical study of the author by Martha Teach Gnudi. Techical annotations and a pictorial glossary by Eugene S. Ferguson [1987] 508-9)

Historian Anthony Grafton, whom many would call a Renaissance man, had one of Ramelli's book wheels constructed, and uses it in his office. In December 2010 you could view an image of Grafton with the book wheel at the Princeton website at this link.