The memory wheel

By most accounts, at least in Europe, the Gutenberg printing press ushered in a revolution. Printing firms would deploy individual, durable typographic elements (letters and punctuation marks) manufactured in metal and arrange them in rows to produce a page of text, the inked imprint of which was transferred to sheets of paper, over and over again.

For media theorist Marshall McLuhan the industry of moveable type was a final triumph of visual over aural culture helping us humans see the physical world as distinct from ourselves, able to be studied, documented and inventoried. For McLuhan, the ability to print and distribute multiple copies of texts cheaply and quickly reinforced “homogeneity, uniformity, and continuity” (95) in communication and in culture.


Other scholars have considered the Gutenberg revolution in terms of the technology of print — the characteristics of moveable type itself, which after all promoted the utility of modularisation and rearrangement.

Printers arrange and rearrange typographic symbols. They could also substitute one symbol for another. Moveable type anticipated the intoxicating freedom we have now with on screen editing, as I move text around, correct and substitute one symbol, word, phrase line or paragraph for another — ad nauseam.


The scholarly world is replete with accounts of epochal change, as in McLuhan’s account of the Gutenberg revolution. Not least is Michel Foucault’s account of how the ancients regarded language, representation and art as mimetic, i.e. a word, picture or art work is a copy of something (as an iconic sign).

When we hear someone utter a cry then that aural sign resembles a similar occurrence in our own experience, and we infer an association between the cry and pain or alarm. Gestures, words and pictures invite similar correspondences. Foucault said that in this rudimentary mimetic process “something like a language is in the process of being born” (116).

There’s more to be said about mimesis of course, but I’ll move on, drawing on Quinn DuPont’s helpful article on the architect Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) penchant for encryption. As I said in the previous post, Alberti lived while the Gutenberg printing press was starting to exert its influence.

Ars brevis instrument

But even before moving on to Alberti it’s worth recalling the earlier innovation of Ramon Llull (1232-1316), the Spanish/Catalan polymath who invented the so-called “Ars brevis,” “Llullian wheel” or “memory wheel.”

I first encountered this invention, or at least its representation, as a moment in the lore of artificial intelligence (AI). By the AI account this paper device served as a rudimentary logic machine that worked with combinations and calculations, as an early precursor to the computer.

The wheel consisted of a series of concentric disks marked out with godly attributes or “dignities” (“goodness, greatness, eternity, power, wisdom, will, virtue, truth, and glory” (101) according to DuPont) that could be combined in various ways to demonstrate the logic of an argument, notably to explain Christian doctrine. According to DuPont,

“Each ‘dignity’ could be combined according to particular rules, which amounted to a method for investigating reality. That is, this method was a way to do work and to actively investigate or ‘compute’ the world” (101).

So, perhaps the Llullian wheel was a precursor to Alberti’s cipher wheel.

“Lull’s development of an active system using rotating wheels, with its particular history of representation, was an important precedent for Alberti’s invention of the cipher wheel” (101).

Llull’s pre-Gutenberg logic machine operated as if ideas can be so manipulated, combined and moved about. But for DuPont, the Lullian wheel really falls under the category of mimesis, as an instrument of mimesis. According to DuPont,

“Lull reconfigured the theory of representation that previously relied on the complex web of resemblances, as it had been handed down to him through ancient and medieval transmission” (100).

Occult combinatorics

The Stanford Encyclopaedia’s entry for Ramon Llull illustrates the wheel, its variants, tables and complicated and occult nomenclature. Even a cursory glance shows how wedded this kind of rationality is to a mimetic view of the universe, as if representing or imitating higher realities.

Alberti’s cipher wheel has similarities, but departs from Llull’s memory wheel in significant ways, not only in its purpose but its format. The cipher wheel is more in harmony with the combinatorial instrumentality of the Gutenberg revolution, to be reviewed next time …


  • Alberti, Giovanni Battista. 2010. De Componendis Cifris. In Kim Williams, Lionel March, and Stephen R. Wassell (eds.), The Mathematical Works of Leon Battista Alberti: 169–187. Basel: Springer Basel.
  • Alberti, Leon Battista. 1996. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, and Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. First published in Latin in c. 1450.
  • DuPont, Quinn. 2017. The printing press and cryptography: Alberti and the dawn of a notational epoch. In Katherine Ellison, and Susan Kim (eds.), A Material History of Medieval and Early Modern Ciphers: 95-117. London: Routledge.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1989. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge. First published in French in 1966.
  • Heim, Michael. 1987. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press
  • Priani, Ernesto. 2017. Ramon Llull. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring. Available online: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/llull/ (accessed 5 January 2018).

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.



  1. Pingback: The immoveable typist | Reflections on Technology, Media & Culture - January 14, 2019

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