Saying Leonardo Da Vinci was way ahead of his time seems almost a cliche. His infinite curiosity, paired with his instinct to merge art and science, helped him create some of the world's most impactful works. Da Vinci was the true definition of a "Renaissance man" being a painter, architect, inventor, and student of scientific knowledge.
Pioneers within the tech industry, artists, and performers still look to Da Vinci as a source of inspiration. This eternal legacy gives you the perfect idea of just how influential Da Vinci was across the pages of history.
Of course, Da Vinci is known for his most famous and admired works like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. However, the self-educated polymath spent much of his time trying to understand nature and biology, using what he learned from his observations as the bedrock for his almost otherworldly creations.
Da Vinci: the artist
When you review the works of Da Vinci, be it his painting or inventions, you will notice the different facets of mind intermingling with each other.
Take his famous work La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) for example. Debates about the existence of her eyebrows and eyelashes are still going on. There was confusion about whether the model, who is thought by some to have been Lisa del Giocondo, was made to look happy or sad. Still, today, speculations are all we have.
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Mysteries also surround Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting. And, it is a reminder that even after hundreds of years later, Da Vinci’s work is still captivating. Da Vinci honed his painting skills under the revered artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Legend has it that after seeing Leonard Da Vinci complete the painting of an angel, Verrocchio vowed to never paint again!
Da Vinci: the engineer & inventor
Da Vinci was always curious about the nature around him. One of his fascinations was flight, and he used to observe how birds take flight and keep themselves in the air. According to some stories, he hated the idea of caging birds and would buy caged birds to set them free. However, he also designed weapons for use in wars.
Some of the noteworthy inventions of Leonardo da Vinci are;
1. The aerial screw
We can consider the Aerial Screw as perhaps the first-ever model of a helicopter. It used the principle of an Archimedes screw in a vertical orientation and consisted of a rotor in the shape of a helix, approximately four meters in diameter. Da Vinci suggested that the screw could be made with a frame of reeds supporting a linen cover, itself supported with wires. The blades would be rotated using human effort.
Da Vinci believed that by turning the screw very fast, a spiral of air will form beneath it, taking the whole structure upward.
Many modern scientists believe that such a mechanism could not become airborne using human effort alone. The design also neglected the problem of torque reaction – where the torque created by the operators would rotate the platform they were standing on, as well as the screw itself. But it is fascinating to see how ahead of time Da Vinci’s thoughts were!
2. The parachute
Yes, the parachute can be attributed to the talented French inventor Sebastian Lenormand in the late 18th century. Yet, Da Vinci may have thought of the concept before this. It might not have been perfect, but it was still a parachute. In short, Da Vinci's design looked more like a giant tent.
Leonardo's parachute consists of sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles, each around 22 feet long. There is no harness, suggesting it would have only been practical for very short jumps, although Da Vinci wrote that it would allow anyone to jump from any height without injury.
So, your next question is, did it work?
In 2000, skydiver Adrian Nicholas built and tested Leonardo's design, successfully jumping from a hot-air balloon. He found the ride to be smoother than that of modern parachutes. However, the heavy weight of the Da Vinci shoot, which weighed more than 90 kg, would have made landing very dangerous for all but the most experienced sky diver.
3. The war tank
Da Vinci's inventions were not all aimed at peaceful uses. He also made sketches of a vehicle fortified from all sides, which was capable of hurling projectiles at the enemy.
The tank was designed to resemble a turtle, with a conical cover made of wood and reinforced with metal plates. It was angled to deflect enemy fire and powered by two large cranks designed to be operated by four strong men. Around the edges were an array of light cannons.
Perhaps the most interesting element was that the gears were located in reverse order, an error Da Vinci should not have made. In fact, some have suggested that the mistake was deliberate, in case the design was stolen.
The vehicle was also too heavy to be used on rough terrain, and may have been designed to intimidate rather than to actually be used in battle. A working model, using the correct gear ratio, was designed by a group of engineers in 2010.
4. The diving suit
Da Vinci was not the first person to consider ways for people to breathe underwater, but he was one of the first to design a comprehensive diving apparatus, perhaps with the goal of allowing the military to strike invading ships. So, what did it look like?
The design featured cane tubes joined by leather, with steel rings to prevent them from being crushed by the water pressure. The tubes are attached to a face-mask at one end, and to a bell-shaped float at the other end, to keep the tube openings above water.
In 2003, a diving suit based on this design was built and tested by diver Jacquie Cozens for a TV show on Da Vinci. It used pig leather, bamboo tubes, and a cork float and worked well in shallow waters.
But this was not Da Vinci's only design for a diving suit. Other drawings included a coat with a pouch that held a leather wineskin for storing air. This design also included a bottle for the diver to urinate in, so they could remain underwater for a long period.
5. The ancient robot
That's right, a robot. It might not have been as functional as some of the robots you may see over at Boston Dynamics, but it was just as revolutionary. Automated machines were actually not that rare in the 15th century. However, most were used for entertainment, rather than to make tasks easier.
Leonardo's robotic knight was not much different. It operated using a series of pulleys and levers, that took direct inspiration from his observations of the human body. Internal mechanisms evenly distributed throughout the "body" allowed the robot to stand up and sit down, even move its head.
The robot was created for a massive gala in 1496, hosted by Duke Ludovico Sforza at the Court of Milan. Five hundred years later, roboticist Mark Rosheim recreated the robot using da Vinci's drawings, showing that it was able to move far more fluidly than most people had previously imagined.
6. The ultimate canon/machine gun
Think of this next invention as the early ancestor of the machine gun. There is something oddly child-like about this invention as if you were to ask a child to create their own canon, and the child came back with a sketch with a 33 barreled superweapon.
The firing of cannons during the inventor's time was a slow and tedious process. Leonardo wanted to speed up the process. His solution? The canon had 33 three barrels, allowing the gun to be fired and loaded at the same time. The gun had three rows of eleven guns each, attached to a rotating platform.
This design was likely never built, but an example of another of Da Vinci's guns, a triple-barreled cannon, was discovered in the 1970s by school children playing in an old Croatian fort.
7. The redesigned anemometer
A lot of Da Vinci's inventions centered around his fascination with flight. The talented inventor spent time studying birds and bats, fascinated by how they move through the sky. To complement his flying machines, Da Vinci developed a device that allowed him to measure wind speed. The design of his anemometer originated from the Italian Renaissance artist, priest, and philosopher Leon Batista, but it included some refinements that made it easier to use.
8. A precursor to the modern automobile
Da Vinci's self-propelled cart was an impressive feat. The cart/car was powered by coiled springs located in cylindrical, drum-like casings, inside the car's frame. It also included braking and pre-programmable steering systems.
The machine worked like a wind-up toy, by rotating the wheels to wind up the springs inside and give it power. The car also had programmable steering, designed by arranging wooden blocks between gears at pre-set locations, although it could only turn right.
The vehicle didn't have a seat and was likely designed to be used as a special attraction at festivals.
A working model was built in 2004 by Florence's Institute and Museum of the History of Science, using Da Vinci's sketches. They found out that it worked, and even looked a bit like the famous Mars Rover.
Da Vinci: the musician
Da Vinci did not compose music, but he had a love for music. He would occasionally sing, and he knew how to play a variety of musical instruments, among which are the lira da braccio and the lyre.
He also spent time designing improved versions of conventional instruments, like the flute and drums. One of his greatest musical instrument design is the Viola Organista.
It combined three different instruments - harpsichord, organ, and viola da gamba. The result was an instrument that looked like a harpsichord and had a set of strings. However, rather than being plucked, the strings press against rotating wheels covered in horsehair. The same principle of using friction on a string to produce sound is how a violin works.
However, Da Vinci only made the sketches for this instrument and it didn’t come into fruition for centuries. The first model of the Viola Organista was built bySlawomir Zubrzycki in 2013. Although Da Vinci's sketches for the instrument were not complete, they contained enough information to allow Zubrzycki to see how the instrument worked.
The Cryptex; Was it one of Da Vinci's inventions?
Some believe the Leonardo Da Vinci invented the Cryptex. The basis for these assumptions arose from the book (and later film) The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.
In the book, the Cryptex contains the secrets of the Holy Grail. But to open the Cryptex, the letters on its rotating disk need proper alignment to form the code word. The paper inside the Cryptex is surrounded by a thin veil of vinegar so that if someone tries to break open the Cryptex, the vinegar will dissolve the fragile paper.
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It does perhaps seem like something that Da Vinci would invent.
However, this time, the invention lies only in the imagination of Dan Brown.
Leonardo Da Vinci, the man of many designations
The life of Da Vinci is certainly worth studying. His amazing adventures are sure to pique anyone’s curiosity.
Da Vinci's mind was well beyond his era. Even today we try to learn more and more about him, simply because he never ceases to amaze us!
"Above all, Leonardo's relentless curiosity and experimentation should remind us of the importance of instilling, in both ourselves and our children, not just received knowledge but a willingness to question it—to be imaginative and, like talented misfits and rebels in any era, to think different, " says Walter Isaacson
Will we have another Da Vinci? Which one of Da Vinci's works do you find the most inspiring?
For more on great inventors and thinkers throughout history, be sure to stop by here.