It’s something of an understatement to say that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a ‘genius’.
As well as being responsible for world-famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the Renaissance man was also a highly talented anatomist, zoologist, geologist, mathematician and military engineer (to name but a few), whose insatiable curiosity about the world around him knew no bounds.
During the course of his life – from his early days in Florence, right through to his final years in France – the polymath sketched out ideas and recorded scientific investigations on thousands of sheets of paper, gathered today in volumes known as codices.
In this article we delve into Leonardo’s notes and pick out 10 of his most impressive inventions and feats of engineering – some of which foreshadow innovations of more recent times.
Among his numerous scientific interests, Leonardo harboured a particular obsession with flight. By studying the anatomy of birds, he hoped to build a machine that would one day allow humans to join them in the skies.
Towards the end of his life, the polymath gathered his thoughts on the topic in a text known as the Codice sul volo degli uccelli (‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’), written around 1505–06.
However, concepts for so-called flying machines were sketched throughout Leonardo’s career. Typically, the contraptions he drew were ‘ornithopters’, with membrane-covered wings designed to flap up and down.
Whether lying horizontally or standing in an upright position, the pilot would have operated the machines using pedals and levers – very much relying on their physical strength to get off the ground and stay airborne.
2. Helical air screw
Another notable flying machine design (pictured below) can be found in a collection of Leonardo’s papers known today as Manuscript B. Sketched during the 1480s, the device – sometimes dubbed the ‘helical air screw’ – bears more than a passing resemblance to a modern helicopter.
Instead of individual rotor blades, however, Leonardo’s invention features a single, screw-shaped blade, designed to ‘bore’ into the air and allow the machine to ascend vertically.
Unfortunately, none of Leonardo’s flying machines would have actually worked. Not only would the materials have been too heavy, but human muscle power alone simply isn’t sufficient for such devices to take flight.
As well as building machines that would enable humans to soar up into the clouds, Leonardo was also interested in creating devices that would allow people to descend from great heights.
In a drawing found in the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo depicts a contraption resembling a parachute, constructed from reinforced cloth and wooden poles. Designed to be “12 arms wide and 12 tall”, the device, Leonardo writes, would enable a man to leap off a tall structure “without hurting himself”.
In June 2000, a British skydiver named Adrian Nicholas constructed his own replica of Leonardo’s ‘parachute’, which he tested by jumping out of a hot-air balloon positioned 10,000 feet above the province of Mpumalanga in South Africa.
Although he deployed a conventional parachute shortly before landing, Nicholas sailed towards earth strapped to Leonardo’s device for a total of five minutes, reporting a surprisingly smooth descent.
4. Self-supporting bridge
Leonardo was employed by a number of powerful patrons throughout his life, including Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI.
Of the numerous contraptions Leonardo invented for his patrons, one of the simplest – but most effective – is a portable wooden bridge that appears in the Codex Atlanticus.
Designed to help armies cross bodies of water, the bridge is made up of several notched wooden poles, erected without the need for any screws or other fastenings.
As demonstrated by modern replicas (like that pictured above), the pressure created by the interlocking beams keeps the whole structure firmly in place.
5. Giant crossbow
A more famous military invention, sketched c1490, is also found in the Codex Atlanticus.
Commonly dubbed the ‘giant crossbow’, the ludicrously large contraption (as demonstrated by the size of the man in the drawing, below) was designed to launch projectiles such as boulders.
While there is no evidence to suggest a working prototype was ever built, Leonardo believed that the sheer sight of such weapons would strike fear into the hearts of the enemy.
Overall, the crossbow was one of a number of siege weapons that Leonardo drew after studying the works of an earlier military engineer named Roberto Valturio, who published a treatise named De re militari (‘On the Military Arts’) in 1472.
Other such contraptions are depicted on the same sheet as the crossbow, improving on Valturio’s designs.
6. Armoured fighting vehicle
Alongside his so-called ‘helicopter’ and ‘parachute’, Leonardo designed several other contraptions that foreshadow innovations of more recent times.
Among them is the armoured car that appears in the Codex Arundel (below), which has often been likened to a modern tank.
Conceived in c1487, the conical vehicle is depicted with cannons around its full circumference, allowing it to attack from 360 degrees.
Crucially, the soldiers inside the tank would have been protected from enemy fire thanks to metal plates reinforcing its wooden shell.
Unusually for a man of his engineering ability, the gears in Leonardo’s supporting drawings are configured in such a way that renders the vehicle immobile.
This may have been a genuine mistake, but some historians have posited that Leonardo incorporated the error on purpose, just in case in his notes were ever stolen and someone else tried to copy the design.
7. Equestrian sculpture
Although ostensibly employed by Ludovico Sforza as a military engineer, Leonardo also pledged that he would build a huge equestrian monument as a memorial to the duke’s late father, Francesco.
In order to create the sculpture – intended to be 24 feet high – Leonardo carefully studied the anatomy of horses, and undertook calculations to work out how much bronze would be needed.
Most crucially of all, Leonardo also came up with innovative new methods for the casting process, which involved designing complex machinery to construct the moulds required.
Unfortunately, the scheme was put on hold following the outbreak of the Italian Wars in the 1490s, and Milan’s bronze supplies were diverted to make weapons instead.
Then, when French troops entered Milan in 1499 and Sforza was overthrown, the project was abandoned for good. According to one story, the invading soldiers used Leonardo’s massive clay model of the sculpture for target practice.
8. Diving suits
Following the invasion of Milan, Leonardo fled the city state and spent a brief stint in Venice.
As his temporary new home was also under threat from foreign powers (this time by the Ottoman empire), the polymath again offered his services as a military engineer.
In the Codex Arundel, Leonardo depicts designs for diving suits made from leather, complete with glass goggles and cane tubing.
In theory, the suits would have allowed Venetian soldiers to walk on the seabed and sabotage enemy ships from below – their breathing made possible by air tanks floating on the water’s surface.
9. The ‘robot’
As well as flying machines, bridges and weapons, Leonardo also made contraptions designed purely for entertainment.
Around 1495, he drew up plans for a mechanical knight – an armour-clad ‘robot’ that could sit up, move its head, and even wave a sword in its hands.
Having immersed himself in the study of anatomy, Leonardo knew how to make the knight’s complex system of gears and pulleys emulate the movements of the human body as closely as possible.
While a complete drawing of the knight doesn’t survive, American robotics expert Mark Rosheim managed to construct a successful working replica in 2002 using Leonardo’s notes.
10. Mechanical lion
Another impressive automaton was conceived towards the end of Leonardo’s life, when – under the employ of Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Pope Leo X) – he built a mechanical lion as a diplomatic gift for King Francis I of France.
According to contemporary reports, the beast could walk, move its head, and open its chest to reveal fleurs-de-lys.
As it happens, Leonardo entered the king’s service in 1516. He was given his own house in the Loire Valley, where he died three years later, aged 67.
Leonardo was buried in Amboise inside a small chapel located within the grounds of the royal castle – a relatively modest final resting place for one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.