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An Explorit "Science Bytes" article by Anne Hance (1995)

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by Anne Hance (1995)


"In dealing with a scientific problem, ... my purpose is to determine the problem in accordance with experience, ..."  so said Leonardo da Vinci, artist, architect, and engineer (1452-1519)

Flight, water, music, civil engineering, warfare, painting - were the areas in which the Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci, applied his insatiable and wide-ranging curiosity, inventiveness and skill, more than five hundred years ago.

Most famous now as an artist, da Vinci actually made his living primarily as a civil engineer. Artist and scientist - he has been proclaimed by historians to be the 'First Man of the Renaissance.' He was born in Tuscany in the foothills of Florence, in 1452 into a world in which the Scientific Revolution was just beginning. During da Vinci's lifetime, Johann Gutenberg invented movable type; Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; William Caxton printed the first book in English; Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the Americas; Copernicus 'revolutionized' astronomy with his theories of planetary movement; and in mathematics the terms plus (+) and minus (-) were first used.

Leonardo da Vinci was first and foremost an inquirer. He studied and designed for his own pleasure becoming (without benefit of much formal education, since he never attended university) a thinker, painter, engineer, scientist, inventor, sculptor, architect, storyteller, and musician, whose works, apart from his paintings, remained largely unknown for centuries. The manuscripts in which he expressed his genius were appreciated and treasured (and commanded high prices) but their contents remained a mystery for a long time, largely because they are so difficult to decipher. (He wrote backwards, with his left hand, from right to left with poorly-formed characters, no punctuation, running short words together and splitting others - mostly on loose, unnumbered pages.)

Da Vinci's studies of water reveal his creative and venturesome spirit. He dreamed of harnessing the power of water, and of travelling both on and under it. His notebooks show designs for a snorkel, a paddleboat, and a diving suit. His bridge canal was a water overpass like a modern highway interchange and he said of himself that he could design, like no other person, ways of guiding water from one place to the other; perhaps the ancient, Roman aqueducts provided some inspiration!

His schemes for powering his machine inventions involved wind and water and human power. He was fascinated by flight and studied bird anatomy to develop ideas for a human powered flying machine. The machine he designed, if built with the materials of those days, would have weighed over 600 lbs. It was never built and da Vinci never flew. However, his dream of human-powered flight was finally achieved in 1977 by the aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready from Pasadena California.

MacCready's pedal-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Condor weighed 77 lbs, had a 96 ft wingspan, and was made of corrugated cardboard, balsa wood, rope, paper-thin aluminum, piano wire, Styrofoam, Scotch tape, and Mylar film. Piloted and powered by bicycle racer Bryan Allen, the Gossamer Condor successfully flew a three-mile, closed course in August 1977. Then in 1979, again piloted and powered by Allen, the Gossamer Albatross (57 lbs) flew 23 miles, a mere 15 ft above the waves of the English Channel, from Folkestone to France. The advantages that existed for MacCready and Allen enabling them to fulfill an ancient dream were mostly technological. Who knows what da Vinci would successfully invent were he alive today!

Mona Lisa and The Last Supper have stood the test of time as significant accomplishments better than da Vinci's scientific studies most of which foreshadowed much later successful inventions and discoveries by others. However, his careful studies of bird flight withstood the test of nearly five centuries; and through his contemplation and study of the wonders of the natural world da Vinci is revealed as unique, and one of the world's first scientists.

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