A Theatre of Machines

Bloomsbury is blessed with a wealth of superb second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, so it takes little encouragement for me to fuel my addiction to rare and interesting books. I recently hit a windfall at one local establishment – part of a specialized collection from the estate of a (presumably late) professor of engineering history at Imperial College. Many of the books are annotated with his comments, and some contain cuttings from scientific journals and newspapers… all of which I treasure as part of a valuable little slice of the intellectual life of a person I never knew.

A Theatre of Machines by A. G. Keller, 1964

A Theatre of Machines by A. G. Keller, 1964

I am trying to learn more about mechanical engineering so as to develop future projects in kinetic sculpture, so these books are a rich resource. Many are illustrated with exquisite facsimile engravings taken from sixteenth and seventeenth century  publications. One book that is very rich in illustrations is A Theatre of Machines by A.G. Keller, published in 1964 by Chapman and Hall. It contains plates and descriptions from the works of three original authors: Jaques Besson, a French engineer and inventor who published ‘Theatrum Instrumentorum’ c. 1571 – 72; Agostino Ramelli, a Swiss/Italian military engineer who published ‘Diverse et Artificiose Machine’ in 1588, and Vittorio Zonca, of Padua, whose ‘Nuove Teatro di Machine at Edificii’ was published posthumously in 1607. There are also illustrations attributed to ‘Strada‘, but no information about this author.

The inventions that were so exquisitely illustrated and described in these publications were a response to some of the practical problems presented by the needs of growing urban populations –  hence the preponderance of solutions for efficient water-supplies, for example – and  the increasing appetite of the elite for ingenious mechanical devices. Many of the principles underlying these inventions had actually been in use since the medieval period such as the use of the waterwheel or crank-handle as the source of power, and primitive wooden gearing systems with lantern pinions and crown wheels.

Detail of the mechanics of a Watermill by Ramelli; 'T' is a wooden lantern pinion.

Detail of the mechanics of a Watermill by Agostino Ramelli; ‘T’ is a wooden lantern pinion.

The most engaging inventions are those that attempt to make simple tasks more convenient, pushing the boundaries way beyond what is practical, to the point of creating what are essentially ingenious but useless machines. Here are two of my favorites:  Agostino Ramelli’s Reading Machine which he claims is:

” A beautiful and ingenious machine, which is very useful and convenient to every person who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are suffering from indisposition or are subject to gout: for with this sort of machine a man can see and read a great quantity of books, without moving his place: besides, it has this fine convenience, which is, of occupying little space in the place where it is set, as any man of understanding can well appreciate from the drawing.”

The last claim is hilarious, considering how large and cumbersome the contraption appears to be! The inset bottom right shows a diagram of the planetary or epicyclic gearing system that operates the machine; however, as Keller points out, there is a slight error in the diagram: “…It is unfortunate that by including the inner circle of gears, Ramelli has ensured that the rollers will revolve in the same direction as the drum, and the books will fall to the floor.”

reading machineMy other favorite is an Automatic Fan powered by a slowly falling weight attached to a cable wound around a drum (as in a tower clock) – the drum rotates as the weight descends, powering a massive driving wheel, which drives the mechanism that causes a hefty paddle-fan to waft back and forth. The entire mechanism requires a dedicated room above the dining-room, and one is somewhat alarmed at the possible consequences of this machine to the diners:  The powerful paddle threatens to sweep everything forcibly off the table, and the man with his back to the weight is possibly in danger of suffering from serious concussion as the weight descends!

Automatic Fan, Strada

Automatic Fan, Strada