On Being In the Right Place

I am working on the second section of the book, the one in which I try to introduce the various threads / ideas that I hope to weave together in thinking about the nature of creativity within the context of crawfish boats. If you’ve read the opening of the book, then you know where I leave off, and where I want to start in the next section, is with the image of the crawfish boat itself. I think I want to begin with some sort of analogy or metaphor that emphasizes the ingenuity and complexity of the thing. I have been comparing crawfish boats to a Rube Goldberg invention, but my friend Tom Mould kept reminding me that Goldberg’s machines were overly complex things that did simple things. That doesn’t apply to crawfish boats. (Or does it?)

Still, having a concrete image to put in front of a reader seemed appealing, and so I was casting about for a cartoonist or illustrator of sufficient renown that I could successfully allude to them in a paragraph or so and then move onto the work at hand. When my memory came up empty, I turned, like I often do, to Google. I searched for “fanciful machines” and “fanciful imagination” and a number of other phrases. At one point I used “imaginary machines” and near the top of the search results was a name that I should have recognized but didn’t: Agostino Ramelli.

Ramelli is best known for the book that has his name in the title, Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostino Ramelli, which is usually translated as The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli, but the main title can also be rendered as The Various Imaginary Machines. Published in 1588, the contains 195 engravings of various machines along with detailed descriptions of each one in both French and Italian. The book had enormous impact on the emergent field of mechanical engineering, and many of its plates would be copied into texts by other authors — a common practice at the time. (More on this in the medieval mini-renaissance in a moment.)

Why should I have recognized Ramelli’s name? Well, I used one one of his illustrations of one of his imaginary machines as the icon for my digital humanities seminar this semester:

Ramelli’s Book Wheel

So far, for me, my work on making and creativity exists mostly as a separate sphere from my work in the digital humanities. I trust — er, I hope — that the two will merge at some point in the not too distant future. This, at least, is the promise of network analysis in my own intellectual journey. In the mean time, here was a connection presenting itself to me. Hmmm, I thought to myself. I should get this book.

And so I headed over to Amazon, where I typed in “Ramelli machine” as a kind of shorthand that I was reasonably sure would return the book in the results. And it did. But it also returned some other titles:

Those were all very interesting books. Say, I own the last one; I’ve read it; and I plan to use it later in Genius Loci. What’s going on here?

What’s going on? When a path loops back on itself like this, the loop it forms has meaning. For now, I will call it affirmation that I am in the right place. (After all, a looped path returns you, in theory, to the same spot — coders will recognize that code loops don’t quite work like this, but I’m willing to bet the analogy only gets stronger in the case of code.)