In addition to being a brilliant artist, Leonardo was also an engineer and inventor. Many of his inventions were far ahead of their time—not actually realized until hundreds of years later. However, the sketches for these inventions have been well preserved in his notebooks, leaving generations of scholars to marvel at his brilliant mind. Here are some of my personal favorites:
Da Vinci’s notebooks are full of notes on birds and flight—he seemed so determined to fly. One of his most famous inventions reflects this desire to soar: the flying machine. This machine was modeled after the anatomy of birds and bats. The designs featured a pair of enormous wings connected to a wooden frame, inside of which a pilot would lie facedown and move the wings up and down via a crank. Unfortunately, this was one of Leonardo’s many ideas that never materialized—and the first successful human flight didn’t happen until approximately 400 years later.
Similarly to the flying machine, Da Vinci designed the first sketches for a helicopter. These sketches seemed to be inspired while he was studying the seeds of the Maple Tree, which spin as they are dropping. The main blade was about 6 feet in diameter, and was designed as a human powered machine—two men would stand in the central circular platform, and each man would take hold of a wooden shaft and walk around the central shaft. This would rotate the blades of the helicopter to produce flight—unfortunately for Leonardo, engines had not been invented yet, so there was no way of creating enough power to lift against the force of gravity.
Da Vinci actually wasn’t the first inventor to attempt an invention that allowed humans to breathe underwater, but his was particularly detailed. The suit was constructed almost entirely of leather and consisted of a jacket, pants, and a mask with glass goggles. The leather jacket had a bulge to store air. The suit also featured a storage container for urine, as well as various pockets for underwater tools. It sounds implausible, but a scuba suit was recently built using Leonardo’s design—and it worked!
In seemingly direct opposition to the more gentle sides of his personality, Leonardo da Vinci also designed many war machines. One of his wealthiest patrons was Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, who was constantly at war. One of Leonardo’s designs for Sforza was a kind of armored vehicle consisting of a wagon propelled by people and covered in sheets of metal. Slits in the metal would allow Italian soldiers to shoot without being struck by enemy fire. The drawings in Leonardo’s notebook for this armored vehicle are almost reminiscent of a giant turtle shell. The armored vehicle was never built—and armored vehicles did not appear on the battlefield until World War I. However, some engineers believe that Leonardo’s prototype would have been more effective and safer than the first tanks that appeared in modern warfare.
One of da Vinci’s other inventions for Sforza was a “robotic knight” that could wave its arms, move its neck, and open and close its mouth. An external hand crank and an internal gear mechanism controlled the robotic knight. Like so many of Leonardo’s inventions, the robotic knight was put aside and forgotten. However, in 2002, Mark Rosheim, an engineer who worked with NASA and Lockheed Martin, built a working version of Leonardo’s robotic knight—so this invention would have actually worked!