Between dream and invention

Leonardo’s flying machines at the Museo Leonardiano di Vinci

By Museo Leonardiano di Vinci

Museo Leonardiano di Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, Codici di Francia, Ms B f. 79 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Flight, the dream of a lifetime

From early youth projects to fluid dynamics studies. Leonardo da Vinci never stopped looking for a way to allow man to fly.

Montalbano MontalbanoMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

One who has tasted flight will walk with his eyes lifted to the sky, because there he has been, and there he would return.

These words perfectly sum up Leonardo’s fascination with flight, a dream that never abandoned him throughout his entire life.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus f 0844rMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Leonardo began to be interested in flight during his first stay in Milan when, driven by youthful enthusiasm, he devoted himself to the design of flying machines with beating wings suitable for imitating the structure and propulsive movement of birds’ wings.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice sul volo degli uccelli, f.11 v, From the collection of: Museo Leonardiano di Vinci
Show lessRead more
Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, f. 860 r, From the collection of: Museo Leonardiano di Vinci
Show lessRead more

Flying birds by Nasser AkababMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

After returning to Florence at the start of the 1500s, he devoted himself to the observation of birds, studying their flight techniques and bodily structure.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codice sul volo degli uccelli, f.8 rMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

As a result he came to the understanding that a human would be incapable of producing sufficient energy for moving the wings, so that flight by means of beating wings, or mechanical flight, could not be achieved.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codici di Francia, Ms B f. 88 vMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid I f 64rMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

He therefore oriented himself toward hovering flight, or gliding flight, in which the propulsion would be generated entirely by available air currents.

Thus were born the delta-wing device, similar to the modern hang glider, which flies by exploiting rising air currents

and the flying sphere, carried about according to wind direction.

Hovering flight, From the collection of: Museo Leonardiano di Vinci
Show lessRead more

Hovering Flight

Courtesy of Museo Leonardiano di Vinci

Flying machines section_ 1980sMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

The Museo Leonardiano's historical flying machines

In Italy, the 1920s and 1930s were characterized by widespread enthusiasm for aeronautical achievements and, more generally, for technology’s new and adventurous frontiers. In 1929, the First National Exhibition of the History of Science was held in Florence, organized through the initiative of the newly founded Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza. It was on this occasion that the “Leonardo da Vinci” Technical Industrial Institute produced some models of components of flying machines based on Leonardo's manuscripts. Some of these, along with other models coming from the Ministry of Aeronautics, were donated in 1938 to the Biblioteca Leonardiana di Vinci, and then were transferred to become a part of the collection of the Museo Leonardiano in Vinci, inaugurated in 1953. The "Study of a Beating Wing", the "Detail of a Mechanical Wing", and the "Flying Machine", exhibited even today at that museum, are therefore among the oldest of the Leonardo models, reconstructed in those years for the first time.

Flight studiesMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Museo Leonardiano
Castle of the Counts Guidi, gallery
Flight studies section

Flapping wingMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

STUDY OF A BEATING WING

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, f. 844
Produced by: “Leonardo da Vinci” Technical Industrial Institute Florence, 1929

It is a mechanical wing that mimics the anatomy and operation of birds’.The wing is formed of four segments subdivided into several movable, articulated sections, interconnected by means of flat springs. The articulations are connected using control lines, and by means of a crankshaft system connected to a handle, a rod is actuated causing the wing to move and to take on intermediate positions favorable for slicing through or for compressing the air. At the same time, a rope connecting the control lines, which runs over a pulley, causes the articulations to flex and to extend, after which the joints, thanks to the springs on them, can extend again and automatically return to the initial position.
According to Leonardo's conception, the wing would have had a covering similar to the membrane on a bat’s wings or like those on the fins of a flying fish.

Flying machineMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

FLYING MACHINE

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Manuscript B, f. 74v
Designed and produced by: School of Aeronautical Construction and Experimentation, Guidonia, 1938

This model reproduces a flying machine with beating wings conceived by Leonardo in the late 1480s. It is a part of his first phase of reflections on flight, characterized by projects involving the use of human power alone to operate devices capable of reproducing the beating of wings.

This machine’s pilot is positioned and secured with a strap on the rectangular platform, to which the complex mechanisms guiding the wing movement are connected.

By thrusting with his feet into the stirrups, he actuates a system of cords and pulleys, causing the wings to go up and down. The same movement automatically causes the flexing, along with a small rotation, of the wings themselves, so that the wings’ surface is presented on-edge during the rise, in order more easily to cut through the air, then becoming flat during the descent, in order better to compress it.

To facilitate the extension of the wings, springs are applied at the junctures of the sections, causing them to return automatically to the starting position.

Large jointed wingMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

LARGE JOINTED WING

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, f. 846v
Designed by: Fausto Colombo, 1983
Produced by: Giovanni Sacchi for IBM Italia, 1983

The huge jointed wing hanging in the center of the Museum gallery is taken from some drawings in the Codex Atlanticus, even though these drawings have not made possible a complete interpretation of the machine. This project bears witness to a phase of study when Leonardo was attempting to combine gliding flight with broad movable components controlled by human force using a system of control lines. After having abandoned his studies for flight by means of beating wings, Leonardo began experimenting with gliding flight and designed a machine blending the two systems together, one that could exploit air currents, like a glider.
The wings of the machine, similar in form to those of bats or large birds, are made up of thin ribbings of reeds, held together by cords.

In imitation of the anatomy of birds, the internal sectors of the wings are fixed and rigid, to support the weight, while those on the outside are movable and flexible, having the purpose of guiding the direction.

The pilot is supported in vertical position at the center of the device by a harness, where he uses his weight to adjust the machine’s equilibrium. Through a simple system of control lines and pulleys the pilot can determine flight direction.

Aereal screwMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

AERIAL SCREW

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Manuscript B, f. 83v
Designed and produced by: school of Aeronautical Construction and Experimentation, Guidonia 1938

The aerial screw is one of Leonardo’s best known designs, long interpreted as the earliest anticipation of the modern helicopter.
The screw is made of a spiral-shaped linen canvas arranged around a vertical mast, inserted onto a circular platform.

By running on the platform and pushing the horizontal bars connected to a central mast, a number of men can operate this screw.
This project is part of the study of the physical and chemical characteristics of air: Leonardo reached the conclusion that air can be compressed and that it has its own material thickness. He therefore retained that a screw-shaped device, if rapidly rotated, could rise in flight by screwing itself into the thickness of the air, in exactly the same manner a common screw can screw into another material.

Flying sphereMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

FLYING SPHERE

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid I, f. 64r
Designed by: Department of Mechanics and Industrial Technologies, University of Florence, 2010

Leonardo designed a curious apparatus that would have allowed a man to glide in the air, driven by the force of the wind.
The device is a sphere obtained from the intersection of three concentric circumferences having the same diameter, realized using reeds and lightweight fabric.

Flying sphere - detailMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

At the center, a series of movable rings of different sizes form a Cardan suspension similar to the mechanism used for holding nautical compasses level. The project assumed the pilot would operate in a standing position at the interior of the smallest of the circumferences, free to rotate in all directions. The machine, which Leonardo called la ventola, or “the fan,” was to be positioned upon a hilltop, so that, when driven by the wind, it would be transported according to the direction of the air currents.
Despite the movements of the sphere, the pilot ought to have been able to remain continuously standing, meaning in the vertical position with respect to the ground.

Delta-winged craftMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

DELTA-WING APPARATUS

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid I, f. 64r
Designed by: Department of Mechanics and Industrial Technologies, University of Florence, 2010

The delta-wing apparatus replicates one of Leonardo’s most original projects on hovering flight, or gliding flight, the fruit of repeated and careful observations of bird flight. The scientist designed a wing that would have allowed the device to fly by exploiting the rising air currents.
The machine, partly similar to the modern hang glider, is equipped with a triangular sail, fixed upon a cross-like structure and held in tension by a metallic border onto which the fabric is sewn.

Beneath the sail, the pilot, probably seated on a saddle, can make corrections to the direction of flight using a rudder and a pedal, both connected to the sail with cords. The pilot uses the rudder to maneuver the cords for inclining the wing upward or down, whereas he can make use of the pedal to flex the wing right or left.

Inclinometer, From the collection of: Museo Leonardiano di Vinci
Show lessRead more

INCLINOMETER

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, f. 1058r Designed and produced by: IBM Italia, 1952

In his design of flying machines, Leonardo took into account not only the force of the pilot’s muscles, to be used for beating the wings, but also his dexterity, to be used for balancing and directing maneuvers. Accordingly, he designed the inclinometer, an onboard instrument for aerial navigation, with which the pilot could control the position of the flying machine with respect to the ground, and thereby maintain the proper balance and inclination necessary during maneuvers for changing direction. The model is formed from a circular base topped by a glass bell, with a small pendulum hanging inside. A central position of the pendulum during flight would indicate to the pilot that the flying machine was at the proper horizontal position with respect to ground, whereas the bell served to protect the pendulum from interference due to gusts of wind.

HygrometerMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

HYGROMETER

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, f. 30v
Designed and produced by: IBM Italia, 1952

For the purpose of measuring air humidity, meaning the quantity of water vapor contained in the air, Leonardo conceived a hygrometer in the form of a balance with two plates.
In using the instrument, a wad of cotton wool is placed on one of the plates, as a hygroscopic (water-absorbing) substance, and on the other, a lump of wax (an impermeable material) of identical weight.
When the air is dry, the balance remains in equilibrium. As the air humidity increases, the balance tips more and more toward the side of the hygroscopic material. This is because the wad of cotton wool increases in weight by absorbing water contained in the air, while the lump of wax maintains its original weight.
The plumb-line at the center of the apparatus shows how much the staff connecting the two plates has inclined, indicating thereon the variation of atmospheric humidity.

Propeller anemometerMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

PROPELLER ANEMOMETER

Model by: Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, f. 675r
Designed and produced by: IBM Italia, 1952

Greatly interested in being able to find the most suitable atmospheric conditions for gliding flight, Leonardo designed an instrument capable of measuring wind velocity.
The model is constituted of a simple structure in the form of a quarter-circle equipped with a hanging vane and a graduated arc.
When thrust by the wind, the vane deviates from its resting vertical position to an angle proportional to the force of the wind itself, measurable on the graduated arc.
In the notes accompanying the drawing, Leonardo emphasizes the necessity of pairing this instrument with a timepiece in order to calculate how much distance can be traveled while being driven by air currents in a specific time interval.

Studies on flightMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Zoroastro’s flight: History or legend?

‘The great bird will take its first flight over the back of its great Cècero, filling the universe with amazement, filling all writings with its renown, and eternal glory to the nest where it was born.’

View from Monte Ceceri by SailkoMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Legend would have it that Tommaso Masini, called Zoroastro, harnessed himself into one of the machines designed by the master from Vinci and succeeded in gliding some thousand meters before landing violently. Whether this is truth or legend, today the Florence airport is located right in the village of Peretola, the "nest" where the brave Zoroastro was born.

Large jointed wingMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

Tommaso Masini commemorative plate by SailkoMuseo Leonardiano di Vinci

A description by Tommaso Masini is provided by Scipione Ammirato (1531-1600) in one of his Portraits .

The Battle of Four Horsemen (Battle of Anghiari) (c. 1657 - 1666) by Gérard EdelinckThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

After having accompanied Leonardo to Milan in 1482, in 1505 he returned with him to Florence and worked as a color preparer for the fresco La battaglia di Anghiari in the Salone del gran Consiglio of Palazzo Vecchio.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Once Upon a Try
A journey of invention and discovery with CERN, NASA, and more than 100 museums around the world
View theme
Google apps