The Bookwheel: The eBook Reader of the 16th Century

Ebooks and eReaders were once thought to be the way of the future sure to be the death of print. While you might think that we’re talking about the early 2000s, we’re actually talking about the late-16th century.

After the printing press was invented in 1440, books became widely available to the public and information started spreading at rapid rates. This continued for about the next 200 years until groups of people started thinking about ways to improve on the common book. Many solutions were thought of but the most notable came from the mind of Agostino Ramelli.

Ramelli was an Italian military engineer who was known for trying to solve everyday problems. He published a book in 1588 titled The various and ingenious machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli where he detailed an idea by the name of the “bookwheel”.

Image Source: Wikimedia

This idea was his solution to the problem of trying to reference many books at the same time. Books of the day were heavy, had thick pages, and weren’t easy to spread out in one confined space.

The bookwheel is exactly what it sounds like, a giant wooden wheel that contains a number of books. Best imagined as a Ferris wheel for books where the riders were replaced with open reference material. On the side, there was a complex layout of gears that allowed each book to stay at the same angle as they traveled around the wheel. Gravity would’ve worked just fine to keep the books as the same angle, but Agostino Ramelli was also a little bit of a showoff when it came to his mathematical prowess.

All this complex design resulted in the ability to sit right in front of the bookwheel and read a number of books without having to move or do any heavy lifting. This is notable because it would’ve been the first major innovation in how people read books, allowing an interface reminiscent of an analog eReader.

Ramelli’s Bookwheel wasn’t his only invention – his claim to fame in the Italian military was actually the creation of a mine that helped breach a fort during the siege of La Rochelle.

The Italian engineer had developed a particular interest in creating overcomplicated but useful solutions to things to try and show off, which filled the 200 pages of his book. He also tried to overcomplicate things to make a statement in the field of engineering, that mathematics and applied sciences were important to the field.

Image Source: Wikimedia

Surprisingly, Ramelli never actually built any of his ideas, but since they were captured in his book, many bookwheels were built after his death. In the 17th and 18th centuries, dozens of bookwheels were built for libraries and research centers across Europe and 14 are known to still be in existence today.

So, the eReader wasn’t actually a new invention, rather it was the modern digital adaptation of a centuries-old analog invention to solve a problem that was nearly as old as books.

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.


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