One of the most known artists of human history was also a tireless visionary, inventor, designer, and engineer. This unmatchable genius designed and built the most fascinating and inspiring machines of all times, from musical instruments to steam cannons.
The Perfect Example of a Renaissance Man
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath during the Renaissance period, even if, he is mostly known as a painter. Leonardo can be considered as the first exemplar of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, an individual characterized by imagination and curiosity. He has proved to be a talented man during his lifetime. Leonardo was also valued as an engineer and even if, this may be considered a less important part of his production, it is interesting to better understand it. Leonardo studied and designed an important number of machines. His journals included several inventions such as musical instruments, a mechanical knight, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, and a steam cannon. Leonardo was also fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, as well as by defense systems and weapons.
Leonardo was inspired by the sling, an ancient weapon that allowed stone projectiles to be hurled forcefully. This machine featured eight slings positioned at the end of each arm, which could throw stones in any direction. The idea was to find an economical weapon to be built with cheap materials avoiding the studies requested for firearms. The machine was meant to be built using wood and ropes, metal was used for few less important parts. A system of wooden crossbows was used for the engine. The crossbows were loaded by twisting the ropes on the axle upon which the rotating arms were located with a toothed wheel moved by soldiers. Given the dangerous nature of this kind of machine, Leonardo made it possible to activate it from the distance.
This invention is quite complicated. The idea is quite clear but the drawing was not so simple to understand. Leonardo wanted to create a wheel upon which four teeth would simultaneously strike thin plates meant to emit a sound inside a pipe used as a soundbox. An operator had to activate the machine turning the crank. The movement of the wheel and the passage of the four teeth was meant to produce polyphonic music (4 teeth = 4 voices) and each voice would go after the other in a canon; hence the name of this machine, that is not a weapon, it has the form of a cannon but firing musical notes.
Leonardo inspired himself to nature, observing birds flying to better understand their secrets. In the end, he wanted to create something unique observing the king of birds: the eagle. Its feathers are the secret to its flight so, to make a human fly through a machine, the key factor was to reproduce the system mechanically. This machine has a framework reduced to a minimum. The pulley system was meant to fold the wings, make the flaps work in order to be able to turn. Little flaps were similar to the ones used by the eagles and allowed the passing of through on the up-stroke and the down-stroke. The pilot could control the tail with a band on his head. The engineer created a machine difficult to use because of the power needed in order to make it take off and fly.