Doña Angelita and the mechanical books
Doña Angelita was granted her first patent in 1949 for “a mechanical, electrical and pressurized air procedure for reading books.” Designed for students, it represented a new way of viewing a textbook. In this ‘book’ the subjects were activated, bringing them to the forefront of the device by buttons; others, meanwhile, allowed the book to be illuminated, making it possible to increase the size of the text and even write and draw on it. There was even the possibility of using luminescent inks so it could be read in the dark. This ingenious device could be manufactured in different sizes and shapes: characters from popular children’s stories, plants or toys. The teacher’s mind was always busy with ideas for transforming and innovating education. The affection and respect she felt for her pupils led her to seek out ways of improving their school life and facilitating the learning process. The saying “to spare the rod is to spoil the child”, so prevalent at that time, did not even enter her educational mind-set.
Within this idea for electronic books came Doña Angelita’s most ambitious project yet: the Mechanical Encyclopaedia, a device that would include all the student’s subjects and tasks. It would open like a traditional book, and on the left there would be a series of automatic spellers that would let you form sentences, phrases, etc. On the right the subjects would be arranged, presented on separate, interchangeable cartridges. Compact, made from lightweight materials and with a little carrying case, the student would bring it to school along with whatever cartridges were necessary for that day’s subjects. It would also include a light, luminescent inks and a magnifying glass to read the texts. Interactive, accessible, practical and logical, the Mechanical Encyclopaedia could help even the most recalcitrant student. Doña Angelita’s tireless quest meant that she continued to pay the patent fees up until 1961. The following year she applied for a new patent for a similar, though somewhat more simplified, device.
A device for reading and different exercises
The encyclopaedia on display is the prototype that was built after the second patent application, in 1962. Given the impossibility of the original project for the Mechanical Encyclopaedia, Ángela Ruiz Robles applied for another patent for a “device for reading and different exercises”, a simplified version of the original idea. The whole system of mechanical or electrical buttons was eliminated, and with it the moving parts and elements, in order to make the resulting mechanism as simple as possible for this second patent application. The second design features a compact block on whose front the spellers and the cartridges containing the subjects could be fitted, thus keeping the original idea of being able to change subjects on a single device without having to bring a different textbook for each subject to class. In the patent application, Doña Angelita described a carrycase for transporting the encyclopaedia which also included space for cartridges for other subjects and exercises, and for an audio player to allow students to listen to lessons.
The prototype on display here was built at the El Ferrol Artillery Depot according to instructions from Doña Angelita and at the orders of Major General Constantino Lobo Montero, the honorary mayor of the city. Although the book you can see here was made from metal, in the teacher’s mind it would have been made from more lightweight materials such as plastic or nylon, making it even easier for students to carry. In 1971, the Technical Institute of Applied Mechanical Experts (ITEMASA) conducted a study on the feasibility of manufacturing the device, although it didn’t get as far as making a prototype. It seems that the sum of 100,000 pesetas at that time was quite a deterrent to its manufacture.
A bridge to electronic books
Doña Angelita kept up the payment of her patent fees until 1975, the year of her death, and never lost hope of seeing her mechanical book brought to life; of facilitating an easier, more visual and appealing learning process based on the idea that it would be more user-friendly and accessible to students. Doña Angelita’s merit goes much further than the invention of a mechanical book with buttons and lighting. Its importance lies in her capacity to think in a different way; to tackle a problem by thinking outside the box, coming up with a solution that went beyond the logic and technological potential of those times or the ability of society to understand and accept it. Ángela Ruiz Robles, in her determination to educate and to make learning easier, devised an artefact that was impossible to implement at that time, and which perhaps people did not want to accept, with a brand new conception of a textbook, a new reading support, an innovative format. A book that was not a book, a notebook without pages, a tactile and interactive device, an encyclopaedia that would bring together all the knowledge of that time in a single place… sound familiar? The Mechanical Encyclopaedia deserves a place of honour in the genealogy of electronic books that emerged several decades later. Doña Angelita was undoubtedly one of their pioneers.