A la Renaissance, l' hypertexte bien avant l'ordinateur ...

The reading wheel image is a reproduction of an engraved plate from Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostina Ramelli ["The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli"] (Paris, 1588). Part of an inscription, in both French and Italian, reads:

Ramelli's reading wheelThis is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.

This wheel is made in the manner shown, that is, it is constructed so that when the books are laid on their lecterns they never fall or move from the place where they are laid even when the wheel is turned and revolved all the way around. Indeed, they will always remain in the same position and will be displayed to the reader in the same way as they were laid on their small lecterns, without any need to tie or hold them with anything. This wheel may be made as large or small as desired, provided the master craftsman who constructs it observes the proportions of each part of its components.

To my knowledge the reading wheel was neither built during Ramelli's lifetime nor in the following four centuries (perhaps no one could find a "master craftsman"). However, thanks to Ian Seymour I have recently acquired images (shown below) of a modern construction of the wheel. Bibliographic information is scarce at the moment, but I am fairly certain that the builder is an architect named Daniel Libeskind. Please feel free to contact me if you have any information about this construction.

Libeskind's reconstruction of the reading wheel

Of course, computer-based hypertext traces it's theoretical lineage to Vannevar Bush's unbuilt "memex," a kind of office desk/microfiche hybrid. The similarities between Bush's description of the memex (and the illustration of it) to Ramelli's reading wheel are striking. Here is an excerpt from Bush's seminal article "As We May Think" from a 1945 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Bush's 'Memex'Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, "memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

There's much to say in the way of comparision, but I'll leave that up to you, virtual reader. Sun has a concise timeline of 20th century hypertext. Finding examples of non-linear reading technologies prior to our century is a bit more difficult. A great starting place, however, is Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing by Jay Bolter. A classicist by training, Bolter offers a unique perspective on the technologies of writing and reading throughout history.