Leonardo da Vinci The Engineer, Scientist and
Ever-questing, always questioning, Leonardo da Vinci was incredibly ahead of his time, creating designs for
machines such as the assault tank, submarine, parachute, underwater breathing apparatus, and even a robot. He was
also a self-taught astronomer, botanist, architect - and talented engineer - and even, some claim, an audacious
Diving Equipment with Breathing Aparatus
Today we would think of Leonardo's thought processes as the result of an unusually balanced mind - both left and
right brains working in harmony, and overtime! The right half of the brain governs the creative and
non-verbal aspects of life, while the left rules logic and reason, utterly essential for any man who sought to
understand the laws of nature - and impose his own will on it.
Leonardo had many hugely ambitious engineering schemes in mind, as can be seen from this letter he wrote to his
patron Lorenzo de'Medici around 1480s offering his services:
'Most Illustrious Lord, having now sufficiently seen and considered the proofs of all those who count
themselves masters and inventors of instruments of war, and finding that their invention and use of the said
instruments does not differ in any respect from those in common practice, I am emboldened without prejudice to
anyone else to put myself in communication with your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets,
thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters
which are in part briefly recorded below.
I have plans for bridges, very light and strong and suitable for carrying very easily, with which
to pursue and at times defeat the enemy; and others solid and indestructible by fire or assault, easy and
convenient to carry and place in position. And plans for burning and destroying those of the enemy.
- When a place is besieged I know how to cut off water from the trenches, and how to construct an
infinite number of bridges, battering rams, scaling ladders, and other instruments which have to do with the
- Also if a place cannot be reduced by then method of bombardment, either through the height of its
glacis or the strength of its position, I have plans for destroying every fortress or other stronghold unless
it has been founded upon rock.
- I also have plans for making cannon, very convenient and easy of transport, with which to hurl small
stones in the manner almost of hail, causing great terror to the enemy from their smoke, and great loss and
- And if it should happen that the engagement was at sea, I have plans for constructing many engines most
suitable either for attack or defence, and ships which can resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon, and
powder and smoke.
- Also I have ways of arriving at a certain fixed spot by caverns and secret winding passages. Made
without any noise even though it may be necessary to pass underneath trenches or a river.
- Also I can make armoured cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the serried ranks of the enemy
with their artillery, and there is no company of men at arms so great that they will break it. And behind these
the infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.
- Also, if need shall arise, I can make cannon, mortars, and light ordnance, of very beautiful and useful
shapes, quite different from those in common use.
- Where it is not possible to employ cannon, I can supply catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other
engines of wonderful efficacy not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances shall necessitate,
I can supply an infinite number of different engines of attack and defence.
- In time of peace I believe that I can give you as complete satisfaction as anyone else in architecture
in the construction of buildings both public and private, and in conducting water from one place to
Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also painting, in which my work will stand
comparison with that of anyone else whoever he may be.
Moreover, I would undertake the work of the bronze horse, which shall endure with immortal glory and eternal
honour the auspicious memory of the Prince your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza.
And if any of the aforesaid things should seem impossible or impractical to anyone, I offer myself as ready
to make trial of them in your park or in whatever place shall please your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with
all possible humility.'
Unfortunately, it seems Leonardo was unable for one reason or another to attempt many of these projects, or at
least to finish them, although his advice was often sage and sound. His name also appears as one of the official
engineers of the city state of Milan, so clearly he was thought of as an expert in the field.
Today, of all his inventions, he is probably best known for his flying machines, although none could ever have
worked. The basic flaw underlying their design was due to his erroneous belief that birds fly by beating their
wings backwards and downwards. In fact, the feathers
give both thrust and lift. And although he was mainly inspired by the flying motion of bats, his machines
were doomed. Not only did he waste 25 years on trying to perfect the flapping motion of his wooden wings, but he
believed that men had sufficient co-ordination and strength to be the machine's 'motor'. Did he ever test fly
his blueprint? Some believe these words in his notebook indicate that he had, or at least had planned to:
Four Winged Flying Maching driven by a Man Standing Inside
'The great bird will take its first flight from Mount Ceceri, which will fill the universe with
There is a legend that he persuaded one of his students to act as pilot, and that - unsurprisingly - the 'great
bird' crashed, breaking the lad's leg.
In later life, he concentrated on fixed-wing craft, drawing heavily from studies of falling leaves and birds in
flight, and although he still failed abysmally to get such a machine into the air and stay there, along the way he
had managed to invent the first barometer and anemometer. He even designed a boat-like aircraft, in which the pilot
used oars to move it through air, not water. Needless to say, it failed.
Famously, Leonardo also designed the world's first helicopter, although perhaps this honour should go to an
anonymous designer who produced a toy with rotor blades as far back as the 1320s - based on the sails of a
windmill. Yet even so, it was Leonardo's design that attracted the attention of Igor Sikorsky, enabling him to
create the helicopter as we know it today.
Design for a Helical Airscrew or Helicopter
Ironically, his very last known aeronautical ideas may have had some mileage in them. Just ten years before his
death, it was a true glider, showing indications of controlled flight via the pilot who would move his legs and
arms in certain positions in order to direct the craft.
In 1483, the Maestro turned his attention to the interesting problem of being able to hurl oneself from a
great height without hurt, writing: 'If a man had a tent made of linen, of which all the apertures have been
stopped up, and it be twelve braccia [12 feet] across and 12 feet in depth, he will be able to throw himself down
from any great height without sustaining any injury.'
The First Parachute
500 years later, Adrian Nicholas of Britain tried out the parachute, as designed by Leonardo da Vinci, after a
three-month building programme.
In beautiful weather, he finally jumped, using the parachute made of canvas and wood during a skydive over
Mpumalanga in South Africa. Afterwards, he said:
'From my perspective, I just saw this canvas material billowing in the wind like the sails of an ancient
sailing boat. And I just hung there in space. There was no oscillation, no rotation or gyration or anything. And I
flew for ages and ages... You could see people in the fields all around waving and shouting. It was... absolutely
It landed perfectly.
However, Leonardo's design, which is based on the tent, was not discovered until the 19th century, when a
parachute based on the principle of a parasol was already on the drawing board.
Way ahead of all his other designs - certainly from a modern perspective - was Leonardo's robot, thought to date
from the 1490s. In fact, it was not until the 1950s that a Californian academic realised that certain odd sketches
among the surviving 14,000 pages of Leonardo's notebooks may have been intended as the blueprint for a humanoid
robot. The Institute and Museum of the History of Science (appropriately based in Florence) then developed
computer models that conclusively showed that the sketches were indeed for an anatomically correct mechanical
The robot was dressed in a suit of armour and may have been intended to beat a drum. 'He' is thought to have
been activated by either weights or water.
Leonardo never ceased inventing - after all in his place and time there was much that cried out to be invented,
for life was tough and very basic. He designed what we would call a submarine - although he became greatly agitated
by the thought that it might be used to kill a great many people: a curious thought for one who blithely invented
the assault tank, scatter gun and colossal crossbow with the same aim in mind - and even, although,
controversially, the bicycle. (That could be a recent hoax.) And when spending long hours amid decomposing corpses
during his anatomical investigations, he even invented a method of fastidiously keeping his finger-nails
With his remarkably intellectual approach to his work, it may often seem as if Leonardo was a cold fish,
utterly oblivious to emotional and even ethical considerations. Yet that was not so, or not always so, as he made
clear when warning those who might wish to follow in his footsteps and dissect corpses of the 'fear of living in
the night hours in the company of corpses quartered and flayed and horrible to see.' Even without worrying about
the softer feelings there were problems for the would-be anatomist, for the various parts of the body - bones,
muscles, nerves, tendons, veins, organs - are all 'marred by the staining of blood', others so minute as to be
nearly invisible, and some destroyed through the very process of dissection.
Some of da Vinci's Anatomical Sketches
Working swiftly and with perfect concentration in ill-lit charnel houses at the dead of night, Leonardo was to
add greatly to the science of practical medicine - for example, concluding that the major blood vessels branch out
from the heart and not, as thought then, the liver - although he was still very much a man of his times. He
saw the human body as a microcosm of the universe, its various parts reflecting elements of nature, such as seas
and the air. He was also not above a little prejudiced clowning - his sketch of an infant in the womb reveals it
was a cow's uterus, and his drawing of the sex act shows the penis entering the vagina and encountering another
However, despite these personal lapses, Leonardo's anatomical drawings were and are so perfect that many are
still used in medical textbooks today.
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