Leonardo's Dream: the Flight

For Leonardo there was nothing mysterious about flight and his observations of birds and his studies of the nature of air had convinced him that it was a purely mechanical process.

Paracadute by Soldatini Alberto Mario, Somenzi VittorioNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Flying Machines 

Leonardo became involved with studies on flight at various points in his life, and the results of his observations in this field are among his most original and anticipatory. They also owe less to the influences of traditional knowledge, even considering that contemporary Sienese engineers had on various occasions contrived airborne devices, such as the parachute.

Leonardo da Vinci GalleriesNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo was fascinated with the idea of being able to translate the forms of nature into a machine that would allow a man to fly. His work proceeded along methodical lines in which observations, drawings, measurements, and experimentations blended together continually. Because of this, his designs for flying machines are not the fruits of romantic intuition, but rather of his continuous and increasingly rigorous work, beginning from practical, mechanical studies and proceeding through the years to his formulation of a global theory on flight.

Ala battente, dettaglio by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Studies of air resistance

For Leonardo there was nothing mysterious about flight. His observations of birds and his studies of the nature of air had convinced him that it was a purely mechanical process. One of his first insights was about the fact that air can be compressed, meaning that its resistance can support the body of a bird and, consequently, it could also be possible for it to support the weight of a flying machine.

Vite aerea, dettaglio by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Another of Leonardo’s applications of the principle of air resistance, seen in the aerial screw, belongs to the same years. The formulation of the propulsive force of the helicoid structure is based on the conception that the air could behave as a solid body and that another body would be able to screw into this. The observation of certain helicoid forms, like the seeds of particular trees that rotate about themselves as they fall, would doubtlessly have contributed to Leonardo’s conceptualization of this structure.

Macchina volante ad ali battenti, dettaglio by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Flying machines with beating wings

The majority of the studies on flight from the Milan years, however, were concentrated around the attempt to give form to a flying machine with beating wings, which would translate the anatomy and physiology relating to the flight of birds into a mechanical expression.

Navicella Volante, particolare by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo succeeded in hypothesizing a wing that vaguely resembles the structure of a batwing, using a frame of reeds, to make it both light and resistant, and covered over with cloth. Through the course of his studies, he designed wings of various types.

Leonardo da Vinci GalleriesNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Gliding flight
Beginning in 1503 Leonardo resumed his studies on the flight of birds in a more organic and systematic manner. Aware of the impossibility of giving form to his theories on flight with beating wings, even though they were correct, he returned to the world of nature for cues to studying new flying machines that would exploit rising currents, to hover with their wings, after the fashion of the large predatory birds, like the kite.

Aliante, particolare by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

In spite of these limitations, his studies amaze us even today for their rigor and their visionary, anticipatory ingeniousness. They represent the utopian attempt to understand the laws of nature, to translate them into design so as to dominate them.

Paracadute by Soldatini Alberto Mario, Somenzi VittorioNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Parachute
On a folio rich with studies and annotations about mechanical flight, Leonardo drew this parachute in the form of a quadrangular pyramid, with base and height of about 7 m.

The surface of the cloth was starched to render it impermeable to air. The intuition at the basis of this drawing, showing a rapid and efficient stroke, is that air can be compressed, thus offering resistance and support for the body of a bird and consequently also for a flying machine.

BEATING WINGNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Beating wing
This model gives form to the study of the possibility for wings to support weights. It is built on a base supporting a lever and a wing, connected by a pivot.

The wing in turn is inserted into a heavy board resting on the base and is composed of a structure of canes covered by impermeable canvas.

According to Leonardo, if the person performing the experiment succeeded in lowering the long
lever with sufficient rapidity, the wing attached to it would push down on the air and compress it, thus lifting the weight of the heavy board, which weighed about as much as a man.

AIR SCREWNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Aerial screw
This study of a flying machine with a rotating wing is an isolated case among Leonardo’s immense corpus on the subject, which generally referred to studies for a machine with beating wings.

Leonardo conceived a structure inspired by the helicoid forms found in nature, as in the case of maple seeds, which can fly to great distances rotating about themselves. Here for the first time the spiral-form
structure, previously used since antiquity in the field of hydraulics, is applied to flight and air.

Meccanismo per il volo a vite e madrevite by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Mechanism for flight with screw and bolt
This model represents a study of a complex mechanism for the propulsion of the beating wings.

This is one of the numerous systems Leonardo drew in attempting to reduce the pilot’s exertion by multiplying the effects of his muscles.

Navicella volante by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Flying airship
This model of an airship, one of the most fascinating syntheses among all the studies on flight, is constituted of a pilot’s cabin in the form of a watercraft, a sort of nutshell in which the pilot can either stand or sit.

It's also equipped with a pair of large bat-type wings and an enormous tail.

The rare presence of a tail refers probably to the possibility of promoting stability in flight, particularly during landing, and perhaps was even intended as a rudder.

Navicella volanteNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Macchina volante con motore a balestra by Soldatini Alberto Mario, Somenzi VittorioNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Flying machine with crossbow motor
The model represents a study of a flying machine with beating wings actuated by a crossbow motor. It is constituted of a vertical structure upon which two different devices are mounted: a mechanism composed of two articulated wings and a crossbow motor on the base.

Macchina volante con motore a balestra, particolare by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

In this study, the beating of the wings is not caused by muscular energy, but by the distension of a crossbow spring (leaf spring) that is charged by a handle.

Macchina volante ad ali battenti by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Flying machine with beating wings
The model represents a study of a flying machine with beating wings actuated by muscular force. It is constituted of a vertical cage structure on which two wing structures are mounted, connected in turn to a double system of pulleys actuated by two foot brackets.

In this study, one of the last dedicated by Leonardo to “instrumental”, or mechanical, flight, the beating of the wings is caused by the pilot, who would have donned the cage structure, slipping his feet into the two foot brackets and thus actuating the pulleys.

Macchina volante ad ali battentiNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Struttura d’ala a inclinazione variabile by Alberto Mario Soldatini e Vittorio SomenziNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Structure for a wing with variable inclination
In this detailed study, Leonardo was attempting to reproduce mechanically the articulations of the wings of a bird during the various phases of flight.

The beating of the wing was caused by simultaneously actuating with the foot the stirrup inserted between the two main cables and with the hand the upper handle.

GLIDERNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Glider
The model represents a glider with wings held taut by means of cords and braces. The wings, which
imitate those of the bat and of birds with large wingspans, appear fixed at the part closest to the pilot and mobile farther out.

Leonardo arrived to this solution by studying the wing structure of birds and observing that
the inner part of their wings moves more slowly than the outer.

Credits: Story

Exhibition by
Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia
Leonardo da Vinci

Via San Vittore 21
Milano

www.museoscienza.org

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
Inside a Genius Mind
Uncover the myths, masterpieces, and mind of Leonardo da Vinci
View theme
Google apps