Information overload

Information is something we face every day. There is so much of it, that we may suffer from an information overload. In the past 20 years the amount of information easily accessible to the common people has increased tenfold, if not more. Internet is of course the main reason for this avalanche of knowledge, and technology makes it more and more convenient to get to all this. Fast Internet access, big screens and multiple monitors, and smartphones are the big thing these days, but how did people in the old days go about finding information, when big books were all they could use?

The 16th century saw a wealth of knowledge increase like we have done over the past years. With the recent(ish) invention of the printing press, individuals now had access to a much wider variety of books and a fraction of the price. For the first time ever, it was viable for a person to have a library in their own home.

But imagine yourself back then attempting a research project. You want to learn about a topic from multiple sources and cross-reference each one. A desk with a scattered pile of books in no logical order with all sorts of bookmarks and notes trying to make sense of it all. There was no Google or Bing back then.

Agostino Ramellis' bookwheel

Agostino Ramelli, an Italian engineer, born in 1531, proposed a complex but intriguing solution to this problem; the bookwheel.

Based on the design of a waterwheel, the bookwheel would hold over a dozen separate titles, all sitting open at the same angle. Using either hand or foot controls, the reader could ‘easily’ sort through the books he collected at ease without the fear of losing track of his place.

Bookwheel design of de Servière

Published in his 1588 book, the design and idea spread around the world. Although it’s never been proven that Ramelli actually built the device, others have followed in his footsteps and tried their hand at its construction; some as far away as China. French inventor Nicolas Grollier de Servière improved on the design, reducing the number of gears needed.

Simplified Czech version of a bookwheel

Strahov Monastery in Prague commissioned the building of one in 1678 and it’s still view-able today. This design holds multiple books in each shelf and can be used by more than one person at a time. A more recent and famous example, shown below, is Thomas Jefferson’s revolving bookstand. Much less obtrusive than the full-scale versions, Jefferson used a 5 book rotating stand to do his research. Replicas are available from the Monticello Catalog.

Bookstand of Thomas Jefferson

Would you trade your computer, smartphone or tablet for one of these?

(Information and images courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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