My favorite thing about the iPad is having dozens of books in one place. Having grown up lugging my share of dead trees around, I'll never not appreciate digital book storage and access.
This is especially true after coming across the Bookwheel, the rather massive sixteenth-century design for a mechanical book "server" that you see above. Designed by Agostino Ramelli, a military engineer who spent his professional career creating siege machinery, the more peace-minded Bookwheel was intended as a convenient way to reference multiple books. Heavy tomes didn't need to be lugged from shelves, and they could be left open on the last page you'd read, unmolested by the rotations; Agostino's design ensured each shelf remained at the same angle no matter the wheel's position.
The device was reportedly never built, at least not in Ramelli's era; but the design for it was revealed in his humbly-titled book The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, printed in 1588. Interestingly enough, Ramelli's designs have since been criticized as the work of an egomaniac; detractors claim his mechanisms were overly complicated, with extraneous convolutions added purely to demonstrate his mechanical prowess.
That didn't stop Daniel Libeskind from creating a version of the Bookwheel for the 1986 Venice Architecture Biennale. Libeskind's version, reverse-engineered from Ramelli's image, was called the Reading Machine.
An interview with architect Hal Laessig, a former student of Libeskind's who had helped with the Biennale installation, reveals it to be a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction endeavor.
First off, according to the interview, then-professor Libeskind pressed his Cranbrook students into building the machine for him. And apparently architecture students at Cranbrook weren't taught about wood expansion back then:
...There were two guys who built the Reading Machine by themselves with no power tools, out of ash, which is an incredibly hard wood. I don't know how they did it. They basically slept in the woodshop.
But when we got to Venice, the hot, humid air had swollen all the wood, so it wouldn't turn. And the teeth on the gears would start snapping. So we had to sand all the parts down—for days—to get it to turn.
Then there is the absolutely bizarre fate of the Reading Machine and two other machines that were part of the same installation. As Laessig explains,
After the opening, I left Venice and came back, and I never heard anything of what happened to the actual pieces. But they lost track of them. Maybe it's different today, but the people running the Biennale were completely discombobulated.
Then [Libeskind] got invited to show them at the Palais Wilson, and he called another student and I, and he said we have to find where these things are. So this guy Donald Bates was sent to Venice to track them down, and he, after two weeks, he finally found them in this warehouse. And they got shipped to the Palais Wilson. And then Libeskind asked me to fly to Geneva to install them. And the day before I left, I get this call from him, that a terrorist had thrown a firebomb and everything had burned up. And not to go.
A wild story, and we half didn't know if it was true, you know, with him. But it was in the news, and it actually happened. The whole thing was so strange: that these things actually got built, and shown, and lost, and destroyed in the way they did.
In more recent years, the French artist Lea Lagasse created her own version of Ramelli's design for a performance piece in 2012. Lagasse got around the wood expansion problem the way most of us do these days: She used plywood.
By the way, a tangential question for you current-day architecture and industrial design students: Is wood expansion taught as part of your current curriculum, or touched upon in any way? It was not part of my curriculum at Pratt, and I'm curious if it's just Pratt and Cranbrook guilty of this oversight, or if it's across-the-board, no pun intended.
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