Yesterday I tweeted about Agostino Ramelli’s reading wheel, and this appears to be a subject near to the heart of my editor, Adam Keiper. He sent me a link to a picture of the great historian Anthony Grafton with his own reading wheel — right there next to his laptop, interestingly enough — it’s like a tableau vivant of old and new technologies of knowledge — and then provided this passage from Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Book Shelf:
Among the mental constructions that Ramelli describes is a revolving desk resembling a water wheel which is like nothing known to have been seen in any contemporary Western study. Indeed, Joseph Needham, the scholar of Chinese science and technology, has argued that a revolving bookcase had its origin not in the West but in China, “perhaps a thousand years before Ramelli’s design was taken there.” According to Needham “the fact that Ramelli’s was a vertical type, and that all the Chinese ones, from Fu Hsi onwards, were horizontal, would simply have been characteristic of the two engineering traditions,” illustrating ‘perfectly the preference of Western engineers for vertical, and Chinese engieners for horizontal mountings.” Whether this be a valid generalization may be argued, as may Needham’s further speculation that “probably from the beginning,’ however, the rotation was a piece of religious symbolism as much as a convenience.” . . .
Whether such devices were appreciated most on grounds of aesthetics, symbolism, or scholarly convenience may have to remain a matter for speculation. There can be little doubt, however, that many a scholar who used such rotary devices in the course of copying, translating, and explicating found them a godsend. The Ramelli wheel may or may not have been so practical, however, for while the illustration of it shows a reader able to consult a series of books as we might click backward and forward from web page to web page on the Internet today, there does not appear to be any convenient working surface on or near the wheel for the scholar who may wish to make notes or write. If a further anachronism may be allowed, the device looks like a 7- or 8-foot tall model of a Ferris wheel, with open books riding on individual lectern cars, suited for passive or recreational reading but not active scholarship involving writing.
I don’t know why Petroski thinks such a wheel is for recreational reading — I would think just the opposite. Nobody reads a dozen books at once for fun: the whole purpose of such a wheel would be to keep authoritative references ready to hand. The photo of Grafton shows how you can set one of these up near your desk and simply turn to it when you need it, rotate until you find the reference you need, then turn back to your writing with the information. Very efficient.