This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture.
He drew sketches and images of his ideas, but either lost fascination with creating them or was never in a position to persuade any of his rich patrons to fund the building of his designs.
The Renaissance Man
Leonardo is considered the ultimate Renaissance man — with passions spanning geology, geometry, astronomy, mathematics, botany, pyrotechnics, optics, and zoology.
Among his many achievements, he was the first to explain why the sky is blue and wrote the words “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction” 200 years before Newton was born.
Ahead of Time
Da Vinci's designs were spectacularly ahead of his time. If they had been built, they might have revolutionized the history of technology, though many of them may have been impossible to build with the tools available in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Leonardo was a skilled poet, singer, and practiced musician. Da Vinci drew up plans for many new musical instruments, including various flutes and the viola organista (a keyboard instrument with strings, which were sounded by the means of a wheel, horsehair strap, and a bow).
The Diagram Code
Leonardo never published all his diagrams, and nobody else knew about them until his notebooks were discovered long after his death. In recent years, however, engineers have begun to construct models of da Vinci's amazing machines and most of them actually work.
Air Screw and Flying Machine
Working much like a modern helicopter, this flying machine looks a lot like a giant whirling pinwheel. The "blades" of this helicopter were to have been made out of linen.
As with many of da Vinci’s ideas, he never actually built and tested it — but his notes and drawings mapped out exactly how the device would operate.
The “Leocopter,” or Air Screw, was to be powered by 4 men standing on a сentral platform turning cranks to rotate the shaft. With enough rotation, da Vinci believed the invention would lift off the ground.
What Was It Made of?
Da Vinci’s helicopter was made of reed, linen, and wire. It measured over 15 feet in diameter. He was a big proponent of the many possibilities offered by the screw shape, and he used the shape for other inventions and designs as well.
Would the air screw actually have worked in practice? Probably not. Due to weight constrictions, modern scientists do not believe da Vinci’s invention would have been able to take flight. And that's a pity — it would have looked amazing in flight.
City of the Future
Da Vinci designed a whole city, planned from the ground up, to be sanitary and livable, featuring wide streets and underground waterways. The result was a triumph of urban planning that unfortunately was never built. This idea is surprisingly modern.
High Above the Plague
When Leonardo was living in Milan around the year 1400, the Black Plague devastated Europe. Cities suffered far more than the countryside, and da Vinci theorized that something about cities made them especially vulnerable to disease.
Da Vinci's "ideal city" was divided into levels, with everything thought to be unsanitary kept on the lowest level, and a network of canals available for rapid waste disposal.
Water would have been distributed through buildings, using a hydraulic system that prefigured modern plumbing.
This invention focused not just on a single area but combined da Vinci’s talents as an artist, architect, engineer, and inventor to create an entire city. The resources needed to build such a city were well beyond his patron’s means.
Da Vinci's self-propelled cart can be looked at as history's first car. In fact, because it has no driver, it can be looked at as history's first robot vehicle, too.
The drawings that da Vinci made of the car in his notebooks don't fully reveal the mechanism inside and modern engineers have had to guess at what made it go.
How Did It Work?
The best guess is that it used a spring-driven mechanism similar to that in a clock. The "mainsprings" are contained inside drum-shaped casings and can be wound up by hand. As the springs uncoil, the cart is driven forward like a wind-up toy.
Right Turns Only
Steering of the cart could be programmed through a series of blocks set among the gears, though the fact that the cart could only make right turns would have limited its usability. Way ahead of its time, its exact workings baffled scholars until the late 20th century.
Leonardo apparently considered his cart to be something of a toy. In 2006, Italy's Institute and Museum of the History of Science built a working model. Some experts even noted that it looked similar to the Mars Land Rover.
The Armored Tank
While working for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, da Vinci proposed what may have been his ultimate war machine: the armored tank. The tank was operated by a system of gears, propelled by cranks that turned a sequence of wheels.
Driven by the muscle power of 8 men, the armored tank was a turtle-like moving shell with 36 guns poking out of its sides. Protected by the outer shell, the men could have driven the tank at about walking speed right into battle without being hurt.
The diagram of the armored tank in da Vinci's notebooks contains a curious flaw: the gearing causes the front wheels to move in the opposite direction from the rear wheels. If built as shown, the tank would have been unable to move.
Da Vinci was too smart to make such an error accidentally, so historians have speculated why he would have made it deliberately. Maybe he didn't really want the war machine to be built. Or maybe he was afraid that his diagram would fall into enemy hands.
Da Vinci’s robotic knight is the first humanoid robot, a real 15th century C-3PO. Da Vinci was fascinated by human anatomy and spent long hours dissecting corpses, in order to figure out how the human body worked. This gave him an understanding of how muscles propelled bone.
Unlike most of his inventions, Leonardo da Vinci apparently actually built the robotic knight, an actual knight’s suit of armor with mechanisms inside. It was used primarily for entertainment at parties, thrown by his wealthy patron Ludovico Sforza.
How Did It Work?
The entire robotic system was operated by a series of pulleys and cables. The robotic knight was able to stand, sit, raise its visor and wave, and even work its jaw because it was anatomically correct.
Da Vinci in Outer Space
In 2002, robotics expert Mark Rosheim used da Vinci's notes to build a working model of da Vinci's robotic knight, and some of the concepts behind it have subsequently been used by Rosheim for the design of planetary exploration robots to be used by NASA.
The Flying Machine
Aviation was probably da Vinci’s favorite area. He seemed truly excited by the possibility of people soaring through the skies like birds.
One of his most famous inventions, the flying machine (also known as the "ornithopter") is clearly inspired by the flight of winged animals, which da Vinci hoped to replicate.
How Did It Work?
With a wingspan that exceeded 33 feet, the frame was to be made of pine covered in raw silk. The pilot would lie face down in the center on a board and power the wings by pedaling a crank connected to a rod and pulley system.
As the pilot spins cranks with his hands and feet, the wings of the machine flap. The inspiration of nature in the invention is apparent in the way the wings were designed to twist as they flapped.
Could It Work?
Unfortunately, as da Vinci himself might have realized, while the flying machine may have flown once it was in the air, a person could never have created enough power to get the device off the ground.