One of the most prolific inventors in history, Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up inventions and innovations across a variety of fields. Whether designing weapons of war, flying machines, water systems or work tools, Leonardo the inventor was never afraid to look beyond traditional thinking and provides inspiration even today for those who want to “dream big.”
Perhaps no idea speaks to the epic ambition and scope of Leonardo’s inventions better than his ideal city. This invention focuses not just on a single area, but combines his genius as an artist, architect, engineer and inventor, to create an entire city.
Leonardo’s ideal city idea came about after the plague had ravaged Milan, killing off nearly a third of the city’s population. Leonardo wanted to design a city that would be more united, with greater communications, services and sanitation to prevent the future spread of such diseases.
His ideal city integrated a series of connected canals, which would be used for commercial purposes and as a sewage system. The city would feature lower and upper areas – the lower being canals for tradesmen and travelers and the upper being roads for the rest of the population. Roads were designed to be very broad, most likely in response to Milan’s narrow streets where people were jammed together.
As an artist and architect, Leonardo’s city would have also been beautiful to the eye, with elegant buildings featuring large arches and pillars. He said of his style of urban planning: “Only let that which is good looking be seen on the surface of the city.”
Leonardo detailed many other great and small aspects of his city, such as fresh air vents in buildings. From the time of his childhood, he always loved nature and its creatures. His plan included special stables for horses, which he viewed as integral to the workings of the city. Because Leonardo’s design was so grand in scale and would have required the rebuilding of an entire city, it comes as no surprise that his ideal city never came to fruition.
Designed for Duke Sforza, Leonardo’s pivoting bridge was assembled on one bank of a waterway, such as a stream or moat and could then swing across the waterway to allow troops to cross. It could then be disassembled and transported, along with the troops to the next spot where needed. The device had wheels and incorporated a rope-and-pulley system for both quick employment and easier transport. It was also equipped with a counterweight for balance.
Leonardo described the bridge in his notes as being “light yet rugged” and it was one of several bridges he designed for the Duke in his lifetime. Another similar bridge Leonardo built for armies was a fast-construction bridge that made it quicker and easier for soldiers to cross multiple rivers.
Such temporary bridges helped armies to navigate unfamiliar terrain with less difficulty and more easily escape from pursuing forces. They also provided armies with what Leonardo believed was one of the most important aspects of warfare – mobility.
With his innovative, engineering mind, Leonardo had many ideas that employed the use of pulleys, weights and gears. These three components were crucial to many of his automated inventions. Leonardo used the mechanisms for another invention – his Robotic Knight. Though a full drawing has never been recovered, fragments detailing different aspects of the knight have been found scattered throughout his notebooks. Designed for a pageant in Milan (which the Duke had put Leonardo in charge of overseeing), the Robotic Knight consisted of a knight suit of armor filled with gears and wheels that were connected to an elaborate pulley and cable system. Through these mechanisms, Leonardo’s robotic knight was capable of independent motion – sitting down, standing up, moving its head and lifting its visor.
Using several different drawings as blueprints, roboticist Mark Rosheim built a prototype of Leonardo’s robotic knight which was able to walk and wave. He noted how Leonardo had designed the robotic knight to be easily constructed, without a single unnecessary part. Rosheim later also used Leonardo’s designs as inspiration for robots he developed for NASA.
Long before there were motorized vehicles, Leonardo designed a self-propelled cart capable of moving without being pushed. It was one of the many inventions that he created dealing with locomotion and transportation. Historians have deduced that he specifically designed the cart for theatrical use.
Leonardo’s cart was powered by coiled springs (centuries before they were in actual use!) and it also featured steering and braking capabilities. When the brake was released, the car would propel forward and the steering was programmable to go either straight or at pre-set angles.
The cart design was so ahead of its time that its exact workings baffled scholars until late in the 20th century. In 2006, Italy’s Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence built a working model based on Leonardo’s design and the cart worked exactly as its inventor intended.
Underwater Breathing Apparatus
What made Leonardo such a great artist was also what made him such a great inventor – his fascination with the world around him. This was the case with water. In his lifetime, Leonardo designed many inventions dealing with water. While working in Venice in 1500, he designed his underwater breathing apparatus to allow for stealthy attacks on enemy ships from underwater. The leather diving suit was equipped with a bag-like mask that went over the diver’s head. Attached to the mask around the nose area were two cane tubes that led up to a cork diving bell floating on the surface.
Air was provided from the opening of the tubes to the diver below. The mask also was equipped with a valve-operated balloon that could be inflated or deflated, so the diver could more easily surface or sink. Like many of his invention ideas, Leonardo’s diving suit did not become well-known until his famous Codex Atlanticus, a twelve-volume set of his drawings and notes, was published after his death.