While Leonardo da Vinci is best known as an artist, his talents were never limited to one field. He was also made significant contributions to architecture, science, anatomy, and engineering, producing thousands of concepts that addressed the challenges of flight, manufacturing, and war.
Through his work, Da Vinci combined both imagination and a deep understanding of emerging science and engineering principles to create ideas that were way ahead of his time. Many of these may be seen in use today, having taken the best part of many centuries to become practical realities.
For example, in 1502 Da Vinci produced a drawing of a single span 220m long bridge as part of a project for Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II of Constantinople. While the bridge was never built at the time, a version of it came to life in Norway in 2001. The construction proved the sound design and engineering mindset of Da Vinci, nearly 500 years after his time.
Traveling exhibitions with replicas of Da Vinci’s inventions are popular across the globe. One of the biggest exhibitions is The Da Vinci’s Machines and Robotics, a collaboration between Artisans of Florence and The Niccolai Group. The exhibition demonstrates how Leonardo’s work is more relevant in today’s scientific world than when he first conceived his amazing ideas.
The exhibition features more than 75 items that have been created by following Da Vinci’s blueprints, or codices. According to Discovery Place Museums, the machines and inventions use only materials that would have been available in Da Vinci’s lifetime, including wood, iron, and cord.
By bringing his concepts to life in current times, it is easy to see how Leonardo Da Vinci personifies what it means to be an engineer. With a defining trait of curiosity, Da Vinci constantly aimed to create new machines for the world and understand the vast complexities of everything around him.
Today, thanks to Da Vinci’s lifetime of accomplishment, countless creations carry his name as their inspiration and it prompts the question, how much of engineering today draws on Da Vinci’s creations?
Leonardo Da Vinci famously performed tensile tests that helped pioneer structural mechanics. In his tests, according to the Story of Leonardo da Vinci and pioneers of structural mechanics, Da Vinci would use a bucket suspended from a beam with a wire made from iron.
Da Vinci would then fill the bucket with sand, and make note of when and how the bucket snapped from the wire when it could no longer carry the load. While experimenting with the length of the wire Da Vinci noted that shorter wires could carry heavier loads.
His findings are the basis of the Peruvian Curve that considers the material used in different threads deliver different loadbearing results, and it can be tested on a smaller scale and easily be applied to bigger projects.
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When Leonardo Da Vinci started his work in topography it came from a place to achieve city and landscape planning.
In the book Leonardo Da Vinci Between Art and Science, Constance Moffatt argues that Da Vinci’s cartography was initially used by the man himself to identify landmarks and to pinpoint the places he studied or heard about.
By adopting a Ptolemaic approach when pencilling terrain, he was able to create expert data. The landscapes and topographical measuring were used to alter borders and features in Florence, Imola, and Milan.
He invented new means to chart territory that gave birth to modern iconographic mapping. His work was so detailed, that it compares to modern satellite imagery.
From drop propagation, mechanical clocking, lever crane systems, rolling ball timers, mechanical drums, and transforming motion – Leonardo da Vinci’s machines would greatly impact the future of industry.
His designs and inventions implemented many aspects of engineering – in a time when the lexicon for the work didn’t even exist.
In the paper Automation of the Leonardo da Vinci Machines, the authors linked Da Vinci’s work with automatic control and states outright that his machines encompass all the key aspects of modern system engineering.
Da Vinci’s inventiveness, scientific experiments, and wide-ranging efforts to understand and improve on the world around him led to significant advancements in civil engineering and other fields.
He is a classic example for today’s scientists, engineers, thinkers, and visionaries to study as they look toward the future.
Artisans of Florence. 2009. The Da Vinci Machines and Robots. [online] Available at: <https://www.artisansofflorence.com/exhibitions/the-da-vinci-machines-robotics/>
Discovery Place Science. 2017. Da Vinci’s Machines opens at Discovery Place. [online] Available at: < https://www.discoveryplace.org/about/press/releases/da-vincis-machines-press-release/>
Panchangam, Sri Chandana. (2016). Leonardo da Vinci. Engineering and Science Focus. 10.13140/RG.2.1.2991.7685.
Bucolo, Maide and Buscarino, Arturo & Famoso, Carlo & Fortuna, Luigi & Gagliano, Salvina. (2020). Automation of the Leonardo da Vinci Machines. Machines. 8. 53. 10.3390/machines8030053.
Ranjbaran, Abdolrasoul & Ranjbaran, Mohammad & Ranjbaran, Fatema. (2021). Story of Leonardo da Vinci and pioneers of structural mechanics. 10.13140/RG.2.2.21313.28006.
Puceković, Branko. (2013). Leonardo da Vinci and His Contributions to Cartography. Kartografija i Geoinformacije. 12. 34-52.
Constance Moffatt. (2014). Leonardo Da Vinci Between Art and Science, Leonardo da Vinci and Mapmaking. University of Viginia. [Leonardo da Vinci Between Art and Science | Moffatt (virginia.edu)]
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