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Flight and other obsessions: The Science of Leonardo da Vinci
September 1, 1997

Leonardo's self-portrait
"He is not well rounded who does not have an equally keen interest in all of the things within the compass of painting," Leonardo da Vinci once wrote. Indeed, for Leonardo, the man who encompasses the spirit of the Renaissance era better than anyone, this included not just mastery of various art forms, but an in-depth understanding of science.

Leonardo's human body
While Leonardo da Vinci is most often associated with his substantial contributions to the world of art, he was also a skilled engineer and scientist. In fact, his exhaustive studies of human anatomy - most of which he rendered in detailed drawings - form the foundation of many modern anatomical studies. It was Leonardo, after all, who first utilized the technique of drawing cross sections.

In-utero drawing

In fact, Leonardo was the first person to ever conduct detailed study and recording of the human anatomy as well. It is estimated that during his lifetime, Leonardo dissected more than 30 human cadavers. The attention to detail that is so much a part of his art, was no less a part of his scientific research. He was the first to introduce anatomical drawings into the regular methodology of science by compiling an enormous amount of sketches detailing everything from an in utero fetus, to a complete rendering of the internal organs. Yet he was also an accomplished engineer - designing everything from flying machines to canal locks systems to heavy weaponry for military use.

Born in the tiny Italian village of Vinci on April 15, 1452, Leonardo's talents as an artist became apparent early in life. But it wasn't until the age of 30 that he made the rather bold move of exploring more scientific pursuits.

In 1482, Leonardo penned a letter to the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In the letter, Leonardo boasted of his superior skills as an engineer, claiming he could build portable bridges, construct bombardments and canons, ships, armored vehicles and catapults. And so it came to be that Leonardo moved to Milan to enter the duke's service, not as a court artist, but as the principal engineer of the city-state of Milan. And it was in Milan that Leonardo made good on his boasts, proving that he was indeed an engineer, architect and scientist of profound skill.

Leonardo's artistic technique was revolutionary, but as a scientist he was even further ahead of his time. It was he who first conceived of many of the machines that are now a staple of modern life. One of Leonardo's obsessions involved the idea of flight. Hundreds of years before the Wright brothers had even heard of Kittyhawk, Leonardo was investigating ways to help humans become airborne.

Leonardo's notebook

One of Leonardo's earliest attempts to tackle the problem of flight seems almost laughable by today's standards, but it is nothing less than remarkable that Leonardo was even able to conceive of his now famous flying machine when the invention is put into historical context. It must be considered that the flying machine was not only an impressive feat in terms of design and conception, but also a display of intellectual courage. The Roman Catholic Church was very powerful in Leonardo's day, and even proposing the notion that humans could fly came dangerously close to committing heresy. Yet Leonardo was never one to shrink from danger. Nor was he one to accept defeat lightly. The fact that the flying machine would weigh in excess of 500 pounds if ever constructed did not stop Leonardo from continuing to investigate flight. For Leonardo, every attempt was a learning experience.

Leonardo designed another flying machine that bears a striking resemblance to modern helicopters. Rather than the propellers used to lift today's choppers off the ground, Leonardo designed his machine so that the entire body would rotate. This feature would make it difficult for a human to travel inside the machine; nevertheless, the concept was theoretically sound. As with many of Leonardo's innovations, whether or not his designs could really work does not seem as important as the effect they had on society. It was Leonardo's fascination with flight that planted a seed, which would ultimately lead humans to develop machines that really could fly.

Leonardo was also responsible for inventing and improving many devices for the military. Perhaps most famous amongst his military devices is what has come to be known as the armored car or tank. An invention that was practically impossible to build during his lifetime, the tank remains one of the most impressive of Leonardo's contributions. The main flaw in Leonardo's tank design was that it was supposed to be powered by humans. The weight of the tank would make it too difficult to be manageable, and the thin wheels envisioned by Leonardo would have made the vehicle useless in muddy conditions, or when crossing uneven terrain. But this first attempt allowed future engineers to isolate which problems had to be overcome if such a vehicle were ever to be effective.

Nowadays, there is little question that Leonardo da Vinci was indeed the "father" of the Renaissance. In an age where being well rounded was prized above all else, Leonardo was not merely a jack of all trades, but a master in many fields. While fifteenth century society stumbled drowsily out of the Dark Ages, Leonardo, in his artistic talent and scientific innovations, burned brightly.

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