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Friday, February 5, 2010

The Book Wheel and the Origin of Technology Books

I love books.  I have piles of them sitting on my desk and in my family room in various stages of being read.  I came across the Book Wheel and thought how cool it would be to have one.  As real as it looks, the Book Wheel was never built.  It was a "paper invention" of the Italian military engineer, Agostino Ramelli (1531 - 1600).  The illustration was published in 1588 in a book entitled, The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli.  
The book belongs to a genre called Theater of Machines.  These late Renaissance books were some of the first printed books with detailed technical illustrations.  The term Theater of Machines comes from the first book of this type published in 1571 or 1572 by Jacques Besson (1540 - 1573), a French mathematician and failed clergyman. His book was entitled Theatrum Instrumentorium et Machinarum (Theater of Instruments and Machines, hence the name of the genre).  The Smithsonian has a copy of both Besson's and Ramelli's book in their Dibner Library.  You can flip the pages of the books virtually using the hotlinks.

Besson started something big with his Theatrum Instrumentorium.   These Theater books were showpieces that were designed to impress the reader with the technical sophistication of the author.  Almost all of the illustrations are fanciful inventions that were never built - and might not even have worked.  But for the first time they provided clear illustrations of mechanisms, gears, and other mechanical devices that were later incorporated into truly useful machines.

Before the Renaissance, almost all technical work was done by craftsman who passed their knowledge down orally from master to apprentice. Most of these skilled craftsman were illiterate or at best, sub-literate.  Moreover, the skills they taught were often quite literally "trade secret", the means by which they protected their business.  There was no other practical means of legal protection of intellectual ideas.
Everyone knows that Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) kept extensive notebooks of his ideas for machines.  But Leonardo kept his notes secret.  He even wrote in a code (he taught himself to write in the mirror image of script) that was only intelligible when viewed in a mirror.  He did not disclose these works during his lifetime.  Another Renaissance Man, Fillippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446), who built the dome on the cathedral in Florence, deliberately left no records at all of how he achieved his engineering masterpiece.

The Theater of Machine books were very well received.  But books like these were rarely produced before the advent of moveable type printing in the mid-1400's.  They also needed the invention of linear perspective drawing (another Brunelleschi invention of around 1425) and the availability of copper engraving plates around 1500.  The copper engravings showed much more detail than previous woodcuts.

In the 1600's, there was a veritable explosion of technology books.  Many were plagiarisms of the Theater books and other texts but the result was the same:  technical knowledge began to diffuse to other countries and other craftsman to be incorporated into new machines.  Drawings became ever-more refined with details describing dimensions, tolerances, materials, and processes for fabrication.

In 1790, when patents finally emerged as a means of protecting inventions in America, the Patent Office required a drawing, a written description, and a working model.  The latter was because drawings still did not convey the essence of how mechanical details might work.  The model requirement was dropped in 1880, partly because drawings had improved but mostly because the Patent Office ran out of room to store the models.

What put me on to all of this was an entry in a book I am reading entitled, Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790 - 1860, by Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar (published by the Smithsonian in 1986). Hindle and Lubar described the Theater of Machines books which led me (via Google) to a wonderful blog named BiblioOdyssey which focuses on illustrations from books of all ages.  This blog is well worth a visit for the diversity of books and illustrations that are presented.

Now, if I just had my Book Wheel...

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