Agostino Ramelli's «Schatzkammer» (1620)

An e-book reader that can store thousands of books? Agostino Ramelli, a military engineer born in Ponte Tresa, near the Italian-Swiss border, in 1531 would have been thrilled by a device of this kind. An e-reader would probably not have surprised him much, since he himself invented the famous book wheel on which he could "upload" more than ten books at a time.

No visit to the Iron Library is complete without a look at the engraving of the legendary book wheel in Agostino Ramelli's work "Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli". Our visitors have the visual pleasure of seeing the first edition of 1588, in which Ramelli had the detailed descriptions of his inventions printed in both Italian and French – an unusual procedure at the time. The ravages of time and the book's popularity have taken their toll: the volume has had to be restored several times since the Iron Library first acquired it in Milan in 1955.

Agostino Ramelli: "Schatzkammer" (1620), spine title

Sixty years later, almost to the day, the Iron Library has now succeeded in acquiring the first (and only) German translation of Ramelli's book of inventions, which was published in Leipzig in 1620, just over 30 years after the first publication. This German edition bears the exquisite title "Schatzkammer mechanischer Künste des hoch- und weitberühmeten Capitains Herrn Augustini de Ramellis ..." [Treasury of the ingenious machines of the noble and famous Captain Agostino Ramelli] . The well preserved copy is bound in pigskin and has a handwritten spine title.

The idea behind the book wheel and the mechanism driving it – an epicyclic gear train – are astonishing, and yet such book wheels have actually been built! That's not true by any means of all the machines that Agostino Ramelli depicted. Among the almost 200 engravings in his book, there are many curious contrivances that did not exist in this form in Ramelli's time but were meant to illustrate certain mechanical operations. As the historian of technology Eugene S. Ferguson remarked: "As one leafs through Ramelli's hundred varieties of water-raising machines, the conviction grows that Ramelli was answering questions that had never been asked and solving problems that nobody but he (or perhaps another engineer) would have posed." If read between the lines, Ferguson's assessment sounds more disparaging than it was probably intended since Ramelli's book was influential and is one of the classics of its genre: machine books of the early modern age.