Leonardo da Vinci was the ultimate Renaissance man. Principally, of course, he was a brilliant draughtsman and painter famous for pieces like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. But he was also a polymath who applied his genius to a bewildering variety of fields. He might reasonably be described as an engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor or architect. But was he also the inventor of the tank?
In 1482, Da Vinci wrote a letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan, making a number of claims about innovative weapons of war, also outlining a rough design for an ‘armoured vehicle’. With a conical shape to deflect enemy fire, interior wheels for movement and holes for an array of cannons, Da Vinci’s armoured vehicle certainly bears similarities to the modern tank.
But Da Vinci’s ‘tank’ wasn’t without its flaws. Modern experts predict it would have been largely immovable due to its weight and that the cannon would have been wildly impractical to use in conflict.
Here’s the history of Da Vinci’s armoured vehicle.
Genius in the service of war
Even a cursory perusal of Da Vinci’s famous notebooks reveals an endlessly curious mind buzzing with ingenious ideas, many of which seem to prefigure much later inventions. Leonardo’s “aerial screw” anticipated the invention of the helicopter, 437 years before the first helicopter took flight, his designs for the first diving suit employ principles that are still in use today and his self-propelled cart concept, which featured braking and pre-programmable steering systems, predicted the car. It’s no exaggeration to say that much of Leonardo’s extraordinary body of work was hundreds of years ahead of its time.
Leonardo’s intellectual curiosity was seemingly limitless, but his motivations weren’t purely cerebral. Nor was he averse to trading on his genius. Leonardo’s research required the backing of powerful and wealthy patrons, and he was pragmatic enough to realise that his ingenuity might be served most profitably in a military context. Given the turbulent power struggles that consumed Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, it’s not hard to see how he came to such a conclusion.
It’s clear from a famous 1482 letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan and one of Italy’s most powerful military leaders, that Leonardo had no qualms about applying his talents to warfare. The letter, which reads like a pitch, offers Sforza a “brochure of military hardware” and refers to a variety of ‘secrets’ that would dramatically enhance the duke’s military powers.
Among numerous claims, Leonardo refers to “certain types of cannon” that will “cause great terror to the enemy, and they will bring great loss and confusion…” as well as “methods for destroying any fortress or redoubt even if it is founded upon solid rock…”
He also promises “armoured cars, totally unassailable, which will penetrate the ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and there is no company of soldiers so great that it can withstand them”.
Leonardo’s bold proposal advertises all manner of military innovations, many of which, including his “armoured cars”, can be found in his notebooks. There’s no evidence that these machines were ever physically realised and it certainly feels like Leonardo’s imagination was getting ahead of itself in his letter to Sforza. Nonetheless, Leonardo’s irrepressible ingenuity is certainly in evidence, and his proto-tank is not without promise.
Leonardo’s armoured vehicle
For all the bravado of his letter to Sforza, Leonardo’s armoured vehicle design, though undoubtedly innovative, is fundamentally flawed. His ‘covered wagon’ design, more often described by modern commenters as ‘the tank’, dates from 1487. Some believe that its basic mechanical flaws can be attributed to Leonardo’s inexperience at the time; later work certainly suggests that he went on to develop a more complete understanding of gear mechanics.
The design features a metal reinforced wooden conical cover, reminiscent of a turtle shell, with slanting angles designed to deflect enemy fire. An array of 16 light cannons would protrude around the perimeter and the vehicle would be propelled by a crank, to be operated by four men.
There are numerous flaws in Leonardo’s design. Most fundamentally, the gears are located in a reversed order so that any movement on one crank would cancel out the other, thus immobilising the vehicle. Some scholars believe that such a basic mechanical error must have been intentional – an act of sabotage that might reflect either Leonardo’s pacifism or an attempt to protect his design.
Additionally, the armoured car’s wheels are insufficient to support the weight of its heavy armoured enclosure, while the radial array of cannons, though intimidating, would have likely proved imprecise in targeting enemy troops. Even the innovative conical cover has been deemed functionally problematic and difficult to manufacture en masse.
Ultimately, Leonardo’s armoured car design is just as fanciful as some of the claims he made to Sforza, but perhaps this was the point. The design was never destined to be realised and used on the battlefield, but it did succeed in presenting an intimidating fantasy that would have served Sforza’s political ambitions. Even if it’s a functional non-starter, Leonardo’s proto-tank is an ingenious concept and would have worked as a symbol of unprecedented military potency in 15th-century Italy.