Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous artists in history. His genius, however, was not just in his art; Leonardo was also a brilliant inventor in the fields of civil engineering, chemistry, hydrodynamics, optics, mechanical engineering, pyrotechnics, anatomy, and physics. He envisioned many ideas long before the technology to build them actually existed, meaning that many of his designs, from helicopters to armored vehicles, calculators, diving suits, and robots, never came to fruition. If they had been built, they may have revolutionized the history of technology, but it is clear the world was not ready for da Vinci.
Leonardo da Vinci was born on 15 April 1452 to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence, Italy. Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Verrocchio. Much of his early working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded him by Francis I. During his lifetime, he was a renowned painter. Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous portrait, and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time. However, throughout his life, Leonardo spent many more hours on his inventions, recorded in over 13,000 pages of notes and sketches, many of which were not discovered until after his death on 2 May 1519.
Bust of Leonardo da Vinci in old age. Source: BigStockPhoto
A new article on LiveScience, reports on five of da Vinci’s key inventions that were before his time – a flying machine, armored vehicle, diving suit, machine gun, and humanoid robot.
One of da Vinci’s most famous inventions is the flying machine, although there were in fact many different models, mostly based on the flight of bats, kites, and birds. His designs reflect his powers of observation and imagination, as well as his keen desire to experience soaring like a bird.
A sketch by Leonardo da Vinci showing one of his envisioned flying machines. (Wikimedia Commons)
One of da Vinci’s models consisted of a wooden frame with a wingspan exceeding 33 feet (10 meters). The ‘wings’ were to be covered in fine silk to create a light but sturdy membrane, like the wings of a bat. The pilot would lie face down on a board in the center. To power the wings, the pilot would pedal a crank that moved a series of rods and pulleys, causing the wings to flap. The fact that the wings were also designed to twist as they flapped demonstrates da Vinci’s inspiration from nature.
There is a legend that Leonardo tested the flying machine with one of his apprentices, and that the apprentice fell and broke his leg. However, there is no real evidence of such a test, and experts have indicated that while the flying machine may have flown once it was in the air, a person could never have created enough power to get the device off the ground.
“The world would have to wait another 400 years or so for a machine that could really fly,” writes LiveScience. “It wasn't until 1903 that brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first successful flight in a powered aircraft.”
One of da Vinci’s sketches of a flying machine shows close resemblance to the wings of a bat (Wikipedia)
Many of da Vinci’s inventions centered around weaponry and war machines, most likely because he was receiving funding from the Duke of Milan, who was responsible for Milan’s defense against the French.
One of da Vinci’s designs was an armored vehicle equipped with weapons and capable of moving in any direction, which many have called a precursor to the modern tank.
“Da Vinci’s vehicle has a number of light cannons arranged on a circular platform with wheels that allow for 360-degree range,” writes ‘Da Vinci Inventions’. “The platform is covered by a large protective cover (much like a turtle’s shell), reinforced with metal plates, which was to be slanted to better deflect enemy fire. There is a sighting turret on top to coordinate the firing of the canons and the steering of the vehicle. The motion of the machine was to be powered by eight men inside of the tank who would constantly turn cranks to spin the wheels.”
“Like his flying machine, da Vinci's armored car was never built. And it wasn't until 400 years later, during World War I, that armored tanks became a fixture of European battlefields,” LiveScience reports.
Model of da Vinci’s armored vehicle based on his sketches. Traveling exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci il genio e le INVENZIONI" at the Palazzo della Cancelleria. (Wikimedia Commons)
Another of da Vinci’s war weapons was the 33-barrelled gun, which was designed to overcome the problem with the canons of the time in that they took too long to load. His concept was that by created three rows of 11 guns in each, all connected to a single revolving platform, the guns could be loaded at the same time and then fired on rotation, eliminating delay.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s design for the 33-barrelled organ is generally regarded as the basis for the modern day machine gun,” writes Da Vinci’s Inventions, “a weapon that didn’t really develop for commercial use until the 19th century.”
Sketch by Leonardo da Vinci of his concept of a multi-barrel gun (Wikimedia Commons)
While Leonardo was working in Venice, he produced a design for an early diving suit, to be used in the destruction of enemy ships entering Venetian waters. The suit was to be constructed using pigskin treated with fish oil to repel water. The helmet had inlaid glass goggles and a breathing tub of bamboo with pigskin joints was attached to the back, connected to a float of cork and wood. As well as receiving air from the surface, the suit was designed to store air in a pocket in the jacket.
A replica was constructed for a BBC documentary based on da Vinci’s drawings and notes. When the scuba divers tested the suit, they found it to be a workable precursor to a modern diving suit, the cork float acting as a compressed air chamber when submerged.
It was some 500 years later before famous inventor Jacques Cousteau and engineer Emile Gagnan invented the modern scuba suit.
A model replica of da Vinci’s diving suit (Image source)
Leonardo's study of human anatomy led to the design of one of the first known humanoid robots in recorded history. The robot, clad in in German-Italian medieval armor, is believed to have been made around the year 1495 and presented at a celebration hosted by The Duke of Milan, but was only rediscovered in the form of sketches in the 1950s.
The robotic knight could stand, sit, raise its visor, open and close its mouth, and independently manoeuver its arms. The entire robotic system was operated by a series of pulleys, cables, internal gears and hand cranks.
In 2002, Mark Rosheim, a specialist in robotics, built a working model of da Vinci’s robotic knight. It was proved to be fully functional, as Leonardo had planned.
Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. (Wikimedia Commons)
Leonardo had no formal education in Latin, mathematics and science and never attended a university. This meant that many of his inventions were largely ignored by scholars and wealthy patrons, and his genius remained locked away in mere sketches of a notepad. When his diaries were discovered, analyses revealed that Leonardo's approach to science was one of intense observation and detailed recording, his tools of investigation being almost exclusively his eyes. Da Vinci was a fundamentally different kind of scientist for his time, as he integrated the arts into his theorizing and hypothesizing, bringing about a unique integrated and holistic approach to science.
Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of his invention of the giant crossbow (Wikimedia Commons)
By April Holloway