Greatness is a quality which lasts well beyond a lifetime. Appreciating the challenges of the day and finding solutions for them is most certainly an achievement worth reckoning, but what would you call one who could look into the future, appreciate the would be challenges and leave behind a road map for the future generation, so that they can benefit in days to come. Leonardo Da Vinci was one such person and when I try to make an unbiased opinion, disregarding my patriotic genes and nationalistic instincts, I find him easily the greatest mind that ever walked on the face of this earth. When you hear the name Leonardo Da Vinci, you tend to associate him with the incredible works of art, such as “The Mona Lisa” or “The Last Supper”. Da Vinci, however, was a man of many talents and not just a mere painter – he was also a prolific inventor who came up with concepts that were so advanced, they could only have been realized in our modern times.
Da Vinci used to write down his ideas and sketch designs in his notebook; most of them were preserved after his death in 1519. There isn’t any evidence that most of Da Vinci’s inventions were constructed during his lifetime, but today when we look back we find a man who was most definitely centuries ahead of his time. He would say “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do”
From his notes and sketches we can see him offering a wide variety of scientific inventions. Let me enumerate a few and you will appreciate the width of the canvas he used to paint:
• He had rudimentary designs for a Tank in the late 1400s – not seen even in the battlefields of World War 1 in the early 1900s. He was heavily involved in military technologies, and one of his greatest patrons, Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan was the man entrusted with defending Italy from the invading French army. To receive Sforza’s financial patronage, Da Vinci designed a variety of military contraption, an armored tank being one of them. The invention included a human-powered carriage, covered in sheets of metal with slits that would allow Italian soldiers to fire their rifles safely.
• He designed an ingenious machine gun, which has some resemblance to modern-day weapons. The design was for typical cannon, but with 12 barrels. The device could shoot one cannonball, then quickly be moved to the next loaded barrel and show again, as the used barrel is being loaded. This design was also never constructed during Da Vinci’s lifetime, as the first modern machinegun appeared on the battlefield in 1862, during the American Civil War and had unmistakable resemblance with his sketches.
• His designed portable bridges are still used by the military
Aviation: Planes and helicopters were invented almost four centuries later but he had sketched designs which looked very much like these objects and based on of the body structure of birds and bats.
• Da Vinci;s flying machine design included a set of very large wings, attached to a wooden frame where the pilot is meant to lie down on his stomach and control the device with some levers. This was his idea, not very different to a hang glider of today.
• His drawing for the Helicopter is said to have inspired Igor Sigorsky to invent the modern Helicopter and is also said to have inspired the invention of the screw propeller found on almost all boats.
• Leonardo’s parachute was drawn 300 years before the first parachute was ever used,
Medicine: From his notebooks we can gather anatomical discoveries that could have saved millions of lives as well as ideas and concepts that would have leapfrogged humanity well into the future –
• Leonardo discovered arteriosclerosis (plaque deposits on the walls of vessels in the human body). This would be rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century – almost 400 years later.
• He created the first full anatomical drawing of the human body, from the vascular system to the muscular system and the nervous system. Although some of the conclusions he came to were wrong about the human body, his mastery of artwork meant that his drawings would remain to be the most accurate anatomical drawings for well over 200 years.
• Charles Darwin is generally accredited to having discovered the theory of evolution, however, due to his vast understanding of human and animal anatomy, Leonardo da Vinci did not think that this was even required to debate, 350 years before Charles Darwin, he simply wrote – “Man. The description of man, which includes that of such creatures as are almost of the same species, as Apes, Monkeys and the like, which are many”
• He invented the ball bearing, roller bearing and needle bearing, 3 miniature machines upon which our modern society operates.
• He drew the first exploded view of a machine – this is crucial to modern engineering practices as it would be almost impossible to visualize a modern machine without this visual aid.
• He designed the first continuously variable transmission system and the rack and pinion gear system – this is still used in almost every car ever built. This system converts the rotary motion of the steering wheel to turn the cars wheels left and right
Geology: He hinted at an understanding of Plate Tectonics. After finding sea shells high above sea level on a mountainside he wrote – “And from time to time the bottom of the sea was raised, depositing these shells in layers, as may be seen in the cutting at Colle Gonzoli” – Plate Tectonics would be accepted as a valid scientific theory in the middle of the twentieth century.
Adventure sports: He sketched Scuba Diving gear was to be made almost entirely of leather and included a full body combination of a jacket, pants and a helmet with tiny glass windows. Air was to be kept in the front bulge of the jacket with tubes attached to the mask to allow the diver to breath. The suit even had a small compartment for urine collection and special pockets for various tools were also designed into the suit, including a knife, and even a horn he can blow to signal he needs to surface. It was not until Jacque Cousteau invented the “water lung” in the middle of the 20th-cetury that diving suits became common.
Robotics: Da Vinci invented a “Mechanical Knight” for wealthy patrons, which was supposedly capable of moving its arms, neck and even open and close its “mouth”. This strange mechanical doll was controlled via external cables that were attached to sets of pulleys inside the robot’s body. One such machine could be classed as the first mechanically powered vehicle as well as being the first remotely operated vehicle.
Town planning: During the 15th-century, Europe was still recovering from the black plague, which annihilated more than a third of Europe’s population. Da Vinci noticed that cities were more vulnerable to the plague in comparison with villages and hypothesized that the cause if how cities were constructed, making them more vulnerable.
The solution was a whole new futuristic city, full designed from top to bottom to provide the best sanitary conditions to the inhabitants. Da Vinci’s City of the Future was divided to several “layers”. Anything that was considered to be unhygienic would be located at the bottom layer, to be evacuated via canals. Each part of the city would enjoy running water thanks to an intricate hydraulic system that also served as the basis of modern plumbing. The result was a marvel of city planning, but its construction was beyond Da Vinci’s means, and he couldn’t find a patron that would support his endeavors.
There are many Leonardo da Vinci Inventions still used today. The his mirror grinding machine – still used by amateur telescope makers The bucket-wheel excavator – still used in coal mines all over the world. The mitre lock used in canals, the odometer to measure distance, the anemometer used by meteorologists and many others for measuring wind speeds and a pair of scissors we use every dayowe their birth to this great inventor.
Unfortunately a vast majority of Leonardo’s inventions passed through history unknown, and had to be re-invented by someone else, the reason for this is because Leonardo never published many of his notes and they remained unseen for several hundred years. He had always planned to compile a large book containing all of his notes, observations and inventions. However, he died before this was completed. When he died in France in 1519 he left his notes to his student Francesco Melzi. Melzi looked after the notes for quite a while but soon found he could make some handsome money by selling the old masters notes and notebooks!
For a lifetime of obsessive study, work, observation and documentation Leonardo da Vinci deserves to be called the greatest inventor of all times. As only he could summarize “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind”. All that he managed to achieve in one lifetime is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals!