Volvelles are paper wheel charts with rotating parts. The modern ones, such as those reproduced in Jessica Helfand’s Reinventing the Wheel, are enjoyable. But there’s something so captivating about the ones from previous centuries that were incorporated into books. These were used for serious stuff like astronomy, medicine and fortune-telling. They were computing devices in their day. To think that the modern movable book has such exalted ancestry.

When I posted a picture recently of a volvelle from Petrus Apianus’s 1529 Cosmographia, it whetted my appetite for more. Here are a couple of other examples from the Cosmographia.

A spread from the Library of Congress website, showing the positions of the sun, moon and planets.
According to the Lambeth Palace Library Exhibition catalogue, Petrus Apianus (1495-1552) was a mathematician and a pioneer in astronomical and geographical instrumentation. The Cosmosgraphia was a European best-seller. It appeared over the next century in as many as 45 editions in 4 languages, printed in 7 cities by at least 18 printers. It contained four volvelles.

Here are a few links to historical volvelles:

The following page from the Astronomicum Caesareum by Petrus Apianus (1540) is thanks to the Wikipedia page on Volvelles:

The following is a “cipher encoding machine” from around 1600, from an exhibition of manuscripts that was at the Getty:
The University of Oklahoma has an example or two:
Galileo Collection
From the University of Oklahoma’s Galileo Collection
As well as the British Library:
Volvelle from "Medical miscellany, including an astronomical calendar" (approx 1490).The British Library.
Volvelle from “Medical miscellany, including an astronomical calendar” (approx 1490).The British Library.
Doesn’t it just make you want to start cutting and assembling circles (or at least drool over photos of old manuscripts)?

3 thoughts on “Volvelles”

  1. These are absolutely beautiful. Never really heard about these before, so thanks for sharing.

    Lovely blog by the way and some great links. Thanks for following my blog, looking forward to your posts.

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you liked the volvelles, and I appreciate the kind feedback. I got pleasantly lost following your various links to your website and pics on Flickr. Really lovely stuff there. I look forward to your posts.

  3. Thanks. Know what you mean by getting lost. I start looking at blogs which lead to other links, Twitter, Flickr etc. then end up on a page and have no idea how I got there.


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