Leonardo da Vinci is heralded as the greatest artist of all time. But was he also the greatest engineer? This February ‘The Mechanics of Genius’ exhibition opens at the Science Museum, London, making the case that Leonardo’s legacy was as much his engineering masterpieces as the Mona Lisa.
He’s been called the greatest painter of all time and his Mona Lisa is the most admired work of art in the world. Yet Leonardo da Vinci was more than an artist. He was also a draughtsman, designer and engineer, producing thousands of mechanical drawings investigating and addressing the challenges of flight, manufacturing and war. Science writer Stefan Klein, author of ‘Leonardo’s Legacy’, calls him “the first engineer of the modern era”.
In February this year, the exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius’ opens at the Science Museum, London, aiming to reassert this Renaissance man as a genius beyond his artistic talents. The display includes 40 working models, originally made for an exhibition in Milan in 1953, based on the designs in his notebooks. Models of flying machines, diving apparatus and weapons are displayed alongside contemporary engineering achievements. We are prompted to ask: how much of today’s technology draws on Leonardo’s legacy?
According to many, there’s hardly a modern invention that wasn’t inspired by the early work of this 15th-century polymath. The parachute (which Leonardo drew 300 years before the first ever launched), the mirror-grinding machine, the humble pair of scissors, portable bridges (still used by the military), the bucket-wheel excavator, the mitre lock (still used on canals), the double hull for ships (if the Titanic had one, it might still be floating) and the spring drive (now mostly used in toys). Even the beautifully simple ball bearing, found in almost every moving machine from laser printers to 747s, and without which our world might well grind to a halt, has been attributed to him. Klein credits his subject with building the first robot. The da Vinci name has become a brand synonymous with engineering ingenuity.
However, the inclusion of the creator of The Last Supper in the pantheon of great inventors is relatively recent. Until the 19th century, Leonardo was only known as a painter. Little of his sculpture or engineering works survived. The thousands of pages of writing and chalk and pen sketches in his notebooks - the only evidence of his “insatiable curiosity and fertile mind regarding science and technology,” as Dr Peter Jakab, chief curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC puts it - were unknown, scattered in private collections. It wasn’t until these notebooks, which came to be known as his codices, began to surface during the 1800s that his extraordinary skill as a draughtsman was revealed. (They are still being discovered. The Madrid codices were unearthed in 1967.) These codices recast Leonardo as “a visionary who saw the modern world before it was realised,” says Jakab.
Bridging two worlds
Leonardo’s work was distinguished from that of his contemporaries by the way he saw science and art not as opposites but as allies. “Leonardo’s technical resources and talents were used to support his natural inclination to draw together insight and techniques from disciplines that most of his contemporaries would have treated as distinct,” says Professor Jim Bennett, curator of the Science Museum exhibition. “What was special about Leonardo is that he was radically different - he bridged these two worlds. He was the artist engineer.”
Leonardo looked to the natural world for his technological insights. “He’s looking at things around him - whether the flow of water or the flight of birds. He’s looking for inspiration. He talks about sitting and contemplating nature for hours, perhaps days, on end,” says Sue Mossman, project leader for ‘The Mechanics of Genius’. Leonardo wrote: “those who are inspired by a model other than nature, a mistress above all masters, are labouring in vain”. In Leonardo’s time, humans weren’t regarded as great inventors; God was the engineer of the world. “We humans could make things. But God was the best maker and designer. The difference between us and God was that God was perfect at it. Nature was God’s creation. So if we want to look at the perfect blueprint of how things worked, it was best to look at nature and see God’s design, and start to imitate it,” says Bennett.
Leonardo’s 15th-century approach is often credited with inspiring today’s burgeoning field of biomimicry, in which the natural world is consulted for solutions to technological challenges. Fritjof Capra, founder of the Centre for Ecoliteracy in California, comments: “He was in awe of the beauty he saw in the complexity of natural forms, patterns, and processes, and aware that nature’s ingenuity was far superior to human design. This attitude of seeing nature as a model and mentor is now being rediscovered in the practices of ecological design and biomimicry. Like Leonardo, eco-designers today study the patterns and flows in the natural world and try to incorporate the underlying principles into their design processes.”
It is in the field of flight that Leonardo’s legacy is most recognised. “Centuries before any real progress towards a practical flying machine was achieved, the seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings germinated in the mind of da Vinci. In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before,” says Jakab.
Francesco Montomoli, senior lecturer in aeronautics at Imperial College, London, says, “Leonardo inspired me. He is one of the reasons why I personally decided to work on fluid mechanics. He was one of the first to use the analogy between water and air to study aerodynamics and this is a great intuition. He inspired any sort of flying machine, from wing design to parachute to helicopter. Every academic that I know is using Leonardo’s sketches of vortices in turbulence lectures. They are so accurate and detailed that they let you explain concepts easily.”
Leonardo produced over 35,000 words and 500 sketches on flying machines, the nature of air and bird flight. Birds, Leonardo wrote, are flying machines. The Science Museum devotes a whole section of the exhibition to Imagining Flight, with models of his parachute and helicopter.
“In his Codex on the Flight of Birds, da Vinci discusses the relationship between the centre of gravity and the centre of lifting pressure on a bird’s wing. He explains the behaviour of birds as they ascend against the wind, foreshadowing the modern concept of a stall,” says Jakab. “He demonstrates a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between a curved wing section and lift. He grasps the concept of air as a fluid, a foundation of the science of aerodynamics. Leonardo makes insightful observations of gliding flight by birds and the way in which they balance themselves with their wings and tail, just as the Wright brothers would do as they evolved their first aeronautical designs.
“He comments on the pilot’s position in a potential flying machine and how control could be achieved by shifting the body weight, precisely as the early glider pioneers of the late 19th century would do. He notes the importance of lightweight structures that aircraft would require. In less than 20 pages of notes and drawings, the Codex outlines a number of observations and beginning concepts that would find a place in the development of a successful airplane in the early 20th century.”
In a section of the Science Museum devoted to contemporary resonances in Leonardo’s drawing, an Airbus A380 inner fixed leading-edge wing rib is displayed next to his 16th-century chalk and pen diagrams of the structure of an eagle’s wing. “When it comes to flying, lightweight construction is of crucial importance, but safety is just as critical,” the label says. “Nature knows about this: the bones of birds grow in a distinctive manner, adding material only where it is absolutely necessary, not too much and not too little. Engineers developing a new wing rib for the Airbus A380 sought to develop the lightest and safest possible structures and found their results were similar to the bone structure of an eagle’s wing.”
Engineering or imagination?
Was Leonardo the engineering genius we’ve come to regard him as? Were his mechanical drawings as extraordinary and ground-breaking as his masterpiece paintings? He certainly imagined the technologically unimaginable for his time. He thought human flight might be possible when it was utterly impossible. However, his imagination meant that not everything he designed on paper could be made in the real world. Leonardo himself never imagined his drawings would result in full-sized machines, and perhaps never intended them to do so. There’s no evidence he ever used his own drawings to construct models.
“He’s not interested in going to prototype. His drawings and observations are for understanding rather than technical development,’ says Professor Bennett. It was several centuries later before engineers made Leonardo’s impossible real through adding their own expertise. “If all you have are perspective drawings, that’s not enough to build an accurate model,” says Bennett. “It required engineering skills to build as close as possible to Leonardo’s thinking. You’re always adding information yourself.”
Claudio Giorgione, curator at the Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan, points out that “many of the drawings, even while fascinating, sophisticated, or precursory of modern ideas, were executed rapidly and lack many mechanical or structural details, some of which would be indispensable for any sort of practical realisation.
“For example, in the covered war chariot, Leonardo did not draw details for the mortar-pieces and so [the 1950s model maker] realised them in accordance with the profile of similar artillery from the period.”
Science historian Vittorio Somenzi warned as early as 1956 of “the error of excessive optimism … regarding Leonardo’s prophetic capacities”.
Today’s leading engineers recognise him as an early inspiration, but not a defining one. “He’s an inspiration, but we don’t draw on his ideas directly; we have after all moved on a vast amount. We live now in a world that he would find amazingly fascinating and complex - digital technology allows aeroplanes to fly in a way that nature could never achieve (stealth fighters defy aerodynamics); we are on the brink of a new materials era (2D structures like graphene) that will bend nature’s apparent rules, and through bio-sciences we are discovering the inner secrets to life itself,” says Professor Miles Pennington, who runs the innovation design engineering programme at the Royal College of Art, London. “Leonardo was part of the journey to getting here, but a dot, a significant, interesting inspiring dot in the distant past. Leonardo no more invented the tank than Arthur C Clarke invented the satellite - to say so belittles those that put in the hard work to make inventions happen.”
It may be ambitious to trace a direct line between Leonardo’s wondrous drawings and a machine of today. Yet his approach, imagination and power of observation have left their mark on modern engineering. “His most precious legacy turns out to be neither the 21 paintings nor the nearly 100,000 drawings and sketches he left behind, but rather his creation of a new way of thinking,” says Klein.
The Florentine used his skills as an artist to inform his work as a scientist. “Drawing is a great discipline for looking carefully and understanding the relationship between things. He does this for machines as well as for the natural world,” says Bennett.
Pennington agrees that today’s engineers can learn the most from Leonardo’s observational drawing. “To draw is to give birth to your ideas; it allows you to share and grow ideas to reflect them back to yourself in preparation for the next step. Everyone should revere his drawing abilities.”