The eccentric engineer

Remembering Agostino Ramelli, the author of a book no engineer should be without.

We all know you need to advertise to be successful. But do engineers do it very well? Engineering is a huge subject and its adverts tend to be rather specific. You very rarely see an ad that says "John Smith - general engineer - no project too small - bridges, spacecraft and fibre-optic network relays a speciality". Perhaps it's just that there is so much engineering that no one can be a generalist.

But this wasn't always the case. If we head back 400 years, we can find what is (in my opinion) the best advertising for a general engineer ever undertaken and a book that no engineer should be without.

Welcome to the work of Agostino Ramelli and his magnificent magnum opus 'The Diverse and Artifactitious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli'.

Ramelli was born in 1531 on the border of Switzerland and the Duchy of Milan and, in 1572, as an apprentice to the Marquis of Marignano, he first appeared as a military engineer at the siege of La Rochelle in the service of Henri, Duke of Anjou. Anjou, later King of France, would go on to employ Ramelli for many years, although the Italian seems to have gained little credit at the French court. Perhaps this was what inspired him to produce his great work in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada.

Ramelli's book contains 200 lavish illustrations of the machines he had invented (and sometimes 'borrowed' or adapted) and forms a sort of exposition of the early engineer's art. It is perhaps the finest example of a whole new genre of literature appearing in the 16th century and known as the Theatrum Machinarum, offering mouthwatering designs to appeal to every despot, benevolent dictator and tyrant that had the money to employ Ramelli and his ilk.

For the more belligerent, there were huge catapults, machines for filling in castle ditches, bolt cutters for snipping through portcullises and portable bridges for the army on the move. More stealthy warriors could confine themselves to tools for removing doors from their hinges or tearing away the bolts that held them shut.

But Ramelli also wanted to appeal to the less combative leaders of his era. His near contemporary Georg Agricola (1494-1555) had enjoyed great success with his 'De Re Metallica', the finest book on mining and metallurgy since Pliny's 'Historia Naturalis'. This was illustrated with numerous woodcuts showing not only mining techniques but cutaways of the new machinery that could be employed to make it more productive. The idea of digging wealth out of your land had always appealed to European rulers, and Agricola's plans for improving and partly mechanising this process were a revelation to them.

So Ramelli followed suit, and, interleaved with the machines for lifting artillery into mountainous places, intricate illustrations of water pumps, earth excavators and coffer dams, some of which look remarkably similar to Leonardo da Vinci's sketches, suggesting that Ramelli had had a peek at the great man's notebook.


Nor were the agricultural sciences ignored. Several cutaway diagrams show improvements for the treadmills and windmills for grinding grain, irrigation equipment and pumping apparatus. There was even room for one of the more civilised pursuits of a Renaissance man or woman - learning.

One of Ramelli's more unusual but strangely prescient machines is a device that looks like a waterwheel but with the vanes replaced by reading desks. Each desk is attached to an epicyclic gearing system meaning that, as the wheel is turned, each book remains on its desk without tumbling off. The idea behind the contraption was to allow the avid researcher - and such an idea could only have come from a mind that ranged as far as Ramelli's - to read several books at once, finding a passage in one and then rotating the wheel to another to cross-reference. It was a cumbersome contrivance, whose epicyclic gearing was more for show than function - the device could equally well operate using weights allowing gravity to keep each desk upright - but, in its own peculiar way, it marked a revolution. The ability to read many texts at once and jump between them was a relative novelty, and Ramelli's machine has been claimed a distant predecessor of hypertext.

If there was a machine that Ramelli couldn't build, he wasn't telling; indeed, one of his engravings doesn't even stop short of the impossible, showing what appears to be an overbalance wheel of the type used in putative perpetual motion machines. But the question is: did all this advertising work? In the short-term, the answer is a resounding 'yes'.

Ramelli's work became a best-seller, a required volume for the library of every Renaissance scholar, soldier and aristocrat. By 1604 Ramelli is referred to as 'Grand Architect to the King', but that is the last we hear of him. His work lived on, however, and even reached China in the hands of Jesuit missionaries, his drawings finding their way into Wang Cheng's 1627 'Qi Qi Tu Shuo'.

Sadly, in this work, many of Ramelli's machines were misinterpreted by engravers, ignorant of the intricacies of his devices, as indeed his whole reputation had become mangled in the last two centuries. Today, the Theatres of Machines are looked on as fanciful asides where they should be as milestones in the history of technology. Ramelli was the engineer every child wants to be - the inventor, the maker, the improver - and no home should be without his "diverse and artifactitious" machines.

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