When it comes to popular culture, Mona Lisa has defined a significant facet of Leonardo da Vinci’s genius, thus establishing him as a painter extraordinaire in days of yore. But when we traverse through history, da Vinci, as opposed to some of his contemporaries, was much more than just a painter. In fact, a more apt description would pen him down as an Italian Renaissance polymath who pursued his interests in varied fields of science and art, ranging from mechanical engineering, architecture to anatomy and even botany.
Suffice it to say, this variegated scope translated to some of the incredible inventions and conceptions of 15th and 16th centuries, covering unique contrivances from 33-barreled organ guns to parachutes. The animation below (with commentary) provides an overview of most these designs, sketches and paintings, concocted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci inside his famed Florence workshop, circa early 16th century AD (the polymath later ‘shifted’ to the Clos Lucé chateau in France, under the patronage of King Francis I of France).
The Medieval ‘Car’?
While the animated video does cover its fair share of da Vinci inventions, one of his interesting conceptions seems to have been left out of the virtual portfolio. This design in question here entails what might be simply summarized as a self-propelled cart (dating from circa 1478 AD), conceptualized long before the advent of steam-powered machines and internal combustion engines. This late medieval precursor to automobiles was envisaged to be powered by coiled springs, while also having a credible steering mechanism, balance wheel (also used in clocks), along with a braking system. So when the brakes were released, the cart sprung forth – with the vehicle’s direction being controlled by the programmed steering that could lead the cart in various angles.
Now in case one is wondering, the Self-Propelled Cart was recreated in our contemporary times, by some folks over at Italy’s Institute and Museum of the History of Science. The machine was contrived by basing its design on da Vinci’s original sketches, and the outcome was pretty surprising. The researchers found out that the furnished vehicle looked much like the Mars Rover, while its seemingly rudimentary navigation system (mostly) worked according to its conceptualized origins.
The Knightly ‘Robot’ –
Another potential conception of Leonardo da Vinci missing from the video entails a ‘robot’ of sorts. Clad in heavy German-Italian medieval armor, the mechanical knight was conceived in 1495 AD as a humanoid automaton. We say ‘conceived’ because the machine with its system of pulleys, gears, levers and cranks, MAY have been the very first human-like automaton actually created (beyond conceptual stage) in the history of mankind – by none other than da Vinci himself. According to some accounts, this so-called robot was ceremoniously displayed at the court of Milan during a gala hosted by the city’s Duke Ludovico Sforza.
In terms of sheer ‘showmanship’, the knight automaton supposedly had the capacity to both sit down and stand up, while also exhibiting its ability in lifting its visor and even moving its head. These complex postures and motions were achieved by what is known as a four-factor operating system integrated in the upper torso, along with a separate tri-factor system installed in the legs. Furthermore, a mechanical analog-programmable controller inside the chest accounted the power and control for the arms, while the legs were possibly regulated by an external crank arrangement that drove the cable.
The ‘Affair’ of The Friction –
Scribbles on a particular page of da Vinci’s notebook (dating from circa 1493 AD) were dismissed as merely ‘irrelevant’ by a 20th century art historian. However a detailed re-analysis project conducted by Ian Hutchings, a professor at the University of Cambridge, has revealed how these writings and sketches might have pertained to the first known source where da Vinci recorded his understanding of the laws of friction. To that end, the researchers have observed how the diagrams (made in red chalk, pictured above) represent rows of blocks that are being pulled by a weight hanging over the pulley. Suffice it to say, similar diagrams are still demonstrated in standard modern-day physics books. As Professor Hutchings said –
The sketches and text show Leonardo understood the fundamentals of friction in 1493. He knew that the force of friction acting between two sliding surfaces is proportional to the load pressing the surfaces together and that friction is independent of the apparent area of contact between the two surfaces. These are the ‘laws of friction’ that we nowadays usually credit to a French scientist, Guillaume Amontons, working two hundred years later.
Quite intriguingly, da Vinci’s ‘affair’ with friction didn’t just stop at these diagrammatic sketches dating from 1493 AD. The Renaissance inventor contrived purposeful applications (for two decades) that were dictated by the laws of friction, as is evident from his penchant for conceptualizing machine elements and various mechanisms. Simply put, the understanding of the principles of friction must have played its integral part when contriving designs of the machine components like wheels-and-axles and screw-threads and pulleys.
Lastly, an interview with Mark Rosheim, founder and president of Ross-Hime Designs, Inc., a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based mechanical design company, also touches upon Leonardo da Vinci’s robotic conceptions, namely the self-propelled cart.