The bookwheel was designed to solve the problem of what to do with so many large heavy books. The 16th century saw an explosion of printing producing books at prices more and more people could afford along with greater numbers of luxury type books that conveyed status for their owners.
But how to read them, especially if you had gout. Captain Ramelli claimed that his invention would help readers with gout who had difficulty moving by making it possible for them to read many heavy books at a time by simply turning the wheel. No need to get up and down every time you wanted to look at a different title.
Captian Augustino Ramelli was an Italia engineer remembered today for a book of engineering designs published in 1588 called Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli. Most of the machines in the book, about 100 of the 195 included, had to do with raising water, but the one that is most remembered today is the bookwheel, which he never built.
Bookwheels have been built, a Google search will find you quite a few. There is a massive one at the Universitat Innsbruck which I found via Book and Sword.
Captian Ramelli’s design featured a system of gears which kept the books level as the wheel rotated. This was not needed as a simple Ferris wheel type free-floating book holder would work just as well. That’s what most bookwheels that have been constructed use.
As for whether or not Captain Ramelli can be considered the true inventor of the bookwheel, some scholars have their doubts. There may have been something very close to Ramelli’s design in China centuries before 1588 and there is this bookwheel used by Charles V, king of France in the 14th century. While Charles’s bookwheel rotates on a horizontal axis, it’s still basically a wheel.
It’s probably more useful too, as it would have been much easier to take notes and make annotations while reading using this lectern type bookwheel than it would have been with Captian Ramelli’s design.
Contemporary readers might wonder why anyone would have needed anything like these bookwheels, since necessity is the mother of invention. Why bother? But while there certainly were books small enough to hold in your lap, miniature books have been around as long as books have, many were so large that they were impossible to read without having something to set them on. Think of the large, single volume dictionaries and atlases the school library used to have back when many of us were kids.
I can clearly see why having a bookwheel would have been useful if you were working on something that involved several books, or if you had three or four new volumes that you wanted to show off to your friends.
Which I do.