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Leonardo Da Vinci: Master Engineer

Updated on September 5, 2017

Leonardo Da Vinci: The Enginner

On the 15th of April 1452, one of the worlds greatest polymaths was born. He would rise to become a figurehead of the Italian Renaissance and epitomise what it meant to be a diverse intellectual. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of many skills, including maths, painting, sculpture, botany, invention and widely thought to be the father of Paleontology. Although widely considered as a true renaissance man, it is his magnificent pieces of art that remain the soul of modern thinking. However, the importance and significance of other areas of study Da Vinci contributed his time to, should not be forgotten. One such area is that of engineering and how he conceptualised ideas that would not be fully implemented until the 20th century. Leonardo Da Vinci invented and mastered machinery that being able to list everything would require extensive writing on the matter. So I have collected a series of his inventions that undoubtedly present his mastery of the field.

Flying Machine

Arguably one of Da Vinci's universally remembered inventions was that of his flying machine. Mimicking a bats wings, the machine has a massive skeletal structure fitted with raw silk, so that it was light weight but sturdy as well. The inspiration for flight evidently came down to observing the movements of birds and bats to come up with this invention. This is evident by the fact that as the wings are flapping they are also supposed to twist. A testament to Da Vinci's incredible ability to observe the world in it's natural form. The pilot in the machine would have to pedal a crank to get the pulley system working to flap the wings. Considering the wing span of his invention was supposed to be 33 feet long it would have taken a considerable amount of power to get it to move off the ground, though the possibility of it staying in the air once there was considerably high. It is doubtful that it was ever tested, but the impact it has had on the imagination and it's possible contribution to modern aviation is remarkable in itself.

Aerial Screw

Another invention which displays Da Vinci's fascination with flight and the incredibly modern ideas which he conceived, is the aerial screw. The aim of the design was to compress air in order to obtain height, which in principle, is similar to modern helicopters. It would require four men standing on a platform to turn cranks connected to the shaft, which in turn would rotate it. Due to weight restrictions and power capacity it is believed that it is unlikely the original would have been able to get off the ground. However, the principle in which Leonardo put forward was decades ahead of its time, considering the first helicopter was made in 1939, it demonstrates his incredible ability to think and combine all areas of study.

Armoured Car

Incontrovertibly the armoured car designed by Da Vinci was miles ahead of technology at the time and resembles much of the modern tank. No other invention came close to Leonardo's until the invention of the tank in World War I. The inspiration for the shell comes from Da Vinci's observations of tortoises and the durability and natural protection their shell gives them. It was also designed to have weapons protruding from it as an effective way to protect the men inside and disperse enemies from all angles. This would have been particularly effective due to it being able to turn a complete 360 degrees. However the design did come with inherent flaws, for example, the two main shafts going into the wheels would cause them to spin in the wrong direction if Da Vinci's plan was fully followed. Furthermore the wheels were too thin and were more than likely to sink in damp conditions. Despite the problems that would have occurred with the armoured car, it is argued by historians that it was an intentional move on Da Vinci's part. It is believed that he abhorred war and would have put these flaws in his plans so that they couldn't be used within a war, but were still sensational enough to gain him patronage. Therefore the flaws are not a true reflection of Da Vinci's mental capabilities but a reflection of his humanity.

Giant Crossbow

One of Da Vinci's more intriguing inventions was the giant crossbow. A typical crossbow within this era was a particularly powerful and desired weapon as it tended to have a great level of accuracy and was extremely powerful. The shear size of Leonardo's design is much easier to comprehend when looking at the illustration of his design. The man upon the crossbow gives you an idea of scale and therefore would have been a good replacement for a typical catapult. Especially as Leonardo's design seems to be built to fling larger projectiles like boulders and other devastating debris. If built the machine would have been devastating, considering that it had several interconnecting layers of wood to help with pulling it back, but would also help to boost tension. With something that gargantuan and powerful it would have been able to cause serious damage to any fortification.

Mark Rosheim

Robotic Knight

A startlingly modern invention also envisaged by Leonardo was his robotic knight. Due to his understanding of human anatomy and how muscle and bones interconnected with movement, he was able to apply these principles to a machine. This yet again demonstrates how perfectly he was able to combine the various fields of his knowledge to pursue new ideas. The knight was apparently built, however it was barely used other than as an entertainment piece at dinner. It wasn't recorded what the knight was able to do, though it has been speculated it could walk, sit down and move its jaw. Da Vinci's robotic knight has inspired many modern engineers to follow in his footsteps and for one (Mark Rosheim) to re-create Da Vinci's design.

Considering even just five of Leonardo Da Vinci's ideas, it is irrefutable that his intelligence and innovative mind created a whole range of engineering feats. He 'was the first "systems engineer", creating a new attitude about understanding how machines work', and how they interconnected to the world at large. Considering the scale and the magnanimity of his work I highly suggest looking at his illustrations in the flesh or acquiring a book combining them all as I did. A fantastic source and one I use myself is Leonardo Da Vinci by Frank Zollner and Johannesburg Nathan. The combination of his paintings, anatomical drawings and inventions are a perfect compendium to start understanding Da Vinci. I believe that there is no doubt we will ever be graced with a mind as sharp and dedicated to as many forms of intellect ever again.


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