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Half a millennium after Leonardo da Vinci’s death, his influence is alive and well in many of the modern machines we see and use every day. An inventor, engineer, scientist, and artist, da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man, and one of history’s brightest minds. Not only did he have the vision to create early versions of game-changing modern gadgets, but he was also the extremely gifted painter who birthed the world’s most famous work of art, the Mona Lisa, and the equally iconic Last Supper.
“He was the first to insist that mechanical devices should be designed in keeping with the laws of nature,” says Martin Kemp, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Oxford University and a leading expert on da Vinci. “He was also the first to design separate components, which could be deployed in various machines,” Kemp tells Popular Mechanics.
da Vinci’s genius lies in the fact that each of his inventions is a direct predecessor to the common tools and machines we use today. As we mark exactly 500 years after his death, we celebrate da Vinci’s most influential creations and the impact they made.
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Perpetual Motion Models
da Vinci’s life was dedicated to studying the machinations of the world around him. He observed nature and studied art and science to gain insight about function, physiology, and motion.
His quest for knowledge led him to discover what would become Newton’s Third Law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) nearly 200 years before Newton was even born—a prime example showing how far ahead of his time da Vinci was.
Because of Newton’s Third Law, da Vinci realized none of his motion models would work and did not pursue building them.
da Vinci is credited as being the first person to take an in-depth look at the machinations of gears. He drew designs for gear wheels and even created a sketch of a landing gear for an aircraft.
He left many unfinished projects behind and missed out on bringing some of his sketches to life. Luckily, public interest in his work is alive and well and over time, many of his machines have been executed by curious minds.
Many of da Vinci’s inventions contained and depended on gears to function, including his giant crossbow and self-propelled cart.
da Vinci created what some consider to be the world’s first “car.” The cart moved with the help of springs and had the capability for steering (although it was limited) and braking.
This was yet another invention that da Vinci never got to test out. In 2004, Paolo Galluzzi, Director of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, and a team set to bring da Vinci’s drawing to life.
Their efforts were a success and showed that the cart operated similarly to wind-up toys, which require their wheels to be rotated in order for the springs to jump into action.
The Giant Crossbow
da Vinci was a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy, as evidenced by the gigantic crossbow he sketched in the mid 1480s. As you can see by the figure standing next to the crossbow, it was huge.
The crossbow featured a crank and gear system that could be launched by using a mallet to hammer at a pin that would set the bow off.
da Vinci’s ballista was designed for large projectiles like boulders and explosives and to frighten the enemy (due to the sheer size of the thing).
‘Ornithopter’ comes from the Greek ‘ornithos’ (bird) and ‘pteron’ (wing). It describes a machine that’s able to achieve flight by flapping wing-like structures.
This is one instance where someone else thought to make a winged-machine before da Vinci. Eilmer of Malmesbury, a monk, created his own ornithopter and was even able to test it way back in 1010 at Malmesbury Abbey. It’s believed that Eilmer covered a distance of approximately 650 feet before crashing and reportedly breaking both legs.
da Vinci’s ornithopter was designed to function similarly to a bird’s anatomy, but it remains unknown if he was ever able to test his idea.
The mobile bridge was another one of da Vinci’s war creations. The idea: With a pack-and-go bridge, soldiers would have an easier time crossing water and other obstacles that they would traditionally have to waste time going around.
The da Vinci bridge is designed to be self-supporting and ready for use within minutes.
Rudimentary Machine Gun
da Vinci was against war and disliked everything that came with it. That being said, the man designed a lot of lethal weaponry that later became modern war machines.
This 33-barreled organ is an early, rudimentary version of the modern machine gun. da Vinci designed it while working under Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The organ was designed to fire 33 guns in rapid succession—weaponry that did not exist at the time.
This design cements da Vinci’s place in history as a visionary, especially when you consider that he created it in the 1480s and the Gatling gun didn’t show up until over 300 years later during the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1884 that the world saw the very first machine gun (that didn’t need a person to operate a crank).
During da Vinci’s tenure with the Duke, he created several war machines, including the armored car included in this list.
da Vinci created a concept vehicle capable of moving in all directions and loaded with various weaponry. Although it looks more like a UFO than a tank, the armored car was no joke.
A prominent design feature shows a 360–degree range for guns to fire at an enemy coming from any direction. The top of the car sits at an angle to better deflect enemy fire and was to be made of metal plates for added protection.
The vehicle was designed so that eight men could fit inside, which was necessary because some of them would have to continually turn cranks to keep the vehicle in motion.
Helical Air Screw
da Vinci once said, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
He was enamored with flight—something that was reflected in his sketches. The helical air screw shown here was designed to act as an aircraft.
In order to provide insight on how the design would be conducive to flight, da Vinci wrote:
“The external edge of the aerial screw is a thick wire with a maximum radius of about four meters. To make this instrument correctly, you would need to use starched-linen cloth so the air does not pass through. If it is rotated quickly, this machine will spin as though it were a screw that penetrates the air and it will rise.”
Prelude to the Modern Parachute
These drawings depict da Vinci’s early concept art for a parachute.
In his sketchbook next to his drawings, da Vinci wrote this:
“If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth, with a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without any injury.”
da Vinci’s concept for the parachute gave it a pyramid shape (as shown in the photo of his sketches). Unfortunately, he was never able to build or test this invention and in 1783, Frenchman Louis-Sébastien Lenormand was credited with creating the world’s first functional parachute.
Because da Vinci’s parachute design was heavy (it called for four pieces of wood to be used as the base) and because of the unconventional shape of the parachute, it was believed that the chute wouldn’t be functional.
However, in 2000, professional skydiver Adrian Nicholas proved that da Vinci’s parachute indeed worked when he safely floated down to earth from a hot air balloon.
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