Musings on Culture

Alejandra de Leiva's Blog

Category : History

The 1949 Mechanical Enclyclopedia, precursor of today’s eBooks

Angela Ruiz Robles

In 1949, Angela Ruiz Robles, a Spanish teacher, invented the Mechanical Enclyclopedia, the world’s first automated reader, precursor of today’s eBooks. The device, that operated on pressurized air, had pre-loaded content on spools that readers could load onto rotating spindles.

In the application she filed with the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office she wrote that:

It has some coils where you place the books that you want to learn in whatever language. By a movement of the the coils, it passes over all the topics, making it stop where you would like it to.
(Patent No. 190,698)




Ruiz Robles conceived the Mechanical Enclyclopedia to reduce the weight of school children’s backpacks, and to make reading accessible to all. She also planned to add a reading light, sound and a calculator. Unfortunately, she could’t find funding in order to continue with the project, and the Mechanical Enclyclopedia never reached the market. The prototype of the automated reader is exhibited in the National Museum of Science and Technology in La Coruña.

The inventor lived in a time when women were totally marginalized in Spanish society. During Francoism, women needed the authorization of their father or husband to carry almost any activity outside domestic labour. Women’s role was limited to being a sweet wife and a diligent mother.

Further information:


The Pedagogical Missions in the Second Spanish Republic

I’ve just seen a very interesting documentary about the Pedagogical Missions in the Second Spanish Republic. The film, directed by Gonzalo Tapia for Acacia Films in 2007, can be watched below (in Spanish with English subtitles).

When the Second Republic was proclaimed in 1931, Spain was a country riven by inequalities. It was a predominantly agrarian country with a deep division between landowners and peasants. Industrial development lagged far behind that of the US and Western Europe: modern industry existed only in a few Spanish regions. As a result, there was a a big chasm between urban and rural life.

One of the aims of the Republic was to fight these inequalities. Education was viewed as an indispensable instrument to lay the foundations of a new, equalitarian society. The government undertook an education reform to established free, obligatory, secular education for all. By then, the level of illiteracy stood at 44% per cent, and was predominant in rural areas.

The Pedagogical Missions were a project conceived to bring culture to remote villages. Teachers, school inspectors, artists and intellectuals travelled to the most underprivileged areas of the country to build libraries, show movies, reproductions of artworks, bring phonograph records and gramophones, teach music, organise open-aire theatre representations, etc., to bridge the chasm separating urban and rural areas. For many of the inhabitants of these towns, that was the first time they read a book, listened to a musical recording or saw a movie.

The documentary features actual interviews with former missionaries, inhabitants from these villages and original footage mostly shot by filmmaker José Val del Omar.

The implementation of the educational reform and the Pedagogical Missions arouse vehement protests from the conservative parties and the Church.

An interviewee in the documentary tells a funny and revealing anecdote: she explains that children were encouraged by the missionaries’ opponents to scornfully yell at them “Communists, communists!”… Some of the children did yell at them… but afterwards added: “When is the film?”.

Misiones Pedagogicas

This anecdote reminds me of the emotional and powerful last scene of La Lengua De Las Mariposas (The Butterfly’s Tongue), a film directed in 1999 by José Luis Cuerda, that adapted three short stories from Manuel Rivas’ book ¿Qué me quieres, amor?. People who have seen the film or read the book will know what I’m talking about; I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who don’t know the story!

In 1936, General Franco’s fascist uprising pushed Spain into a bloody civil war that resulted in the fascist victory in 1939 and the establishment of Franco’s dictatorship, until his death in 1975. The fascists’ regime carried out extensive purges among the teaching staff, that was regarded as permeated with communism. Franco’s regime endeavored to remove all vestiges of the Republicans’ education reform: Francoism reinforced class distinctions and ideological control.

To get a better understanding of the educational reform intended by the Second Republic, complement the viewing of the documentary with these  interesting articles:


The Making of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Matthew writing

Saint Matthew writing, manuscript at the Bilbiothèque Nationale de France

In our eBook era, it’s worth revisiting the craftsmanship of book-making, to understand and appreciate the effort it involved.

In ancient times, texts were written on papyrus, produced from the pith of the papyrus plant. From the fifth century, parchment made from animal skin became the main writing material.

This video from the J.Paul Getty Museum (6:20) provides an interesting overview of the process of making illuminated manuscripts, from parchment preparation to binding.  In illuminated manuscripts, text is supplemented by the addition of miniature illustrations and decorated initials, made with gold and silver leaf and pigments made from plants and minerals, and could take months or years to produce. Traditionally, these manuscripts were produced in monasteries. The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages.

Book illumination reamained a flourishing art until the sixteenth century.

In this other video (1:10:10), Dr. Sally Dormer explains in thorough detail the making of medieval manuscripts, in a lecture given at the Museum of London in 2012. Dr. Dormer is a specialist medieval art historian.

Furthermore, on the website Medieval Manuscripts on the Web you can find a list of manuscript digitization projects, ordered by country. Other resourceful websites are the Digital Scriptorium, a growing image database of medieval and renaissance manuscripts, and Europeana Regia, a corpus of digitised manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a focus on the beginning of European culture in the Carolingian time: documents from the Bibliotheca Carolina (8th and 9th centuries), the Library of Charles V (14th century) and the Library of the Aragonese Kings of Naples (15th and 16th centuries).

If you want to know more about illuminated manuscripts, I recommend you the following two beautiful books:

A History of Illuminated Manuscripts and The Bible of Illuminated Letters: A Treasury of Decorative Calligraphy (Quarto Book).

For a more general history of writing systems, I recommend you the excellent book The Story of Writing.