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Historical Figures in Engineering: Leonardo Da Vinci

  • by: Ryan Abbot
  • On: 10, Oct 2018
3 min read

One of most famous geniuses of all time, Leonardo Da Vinci is an icon in the world of engineering, as well as art, sculpture, mathematics, and more. Born in 1452, Da Vinci studied as an apprentice painter and sculptor. Allegedly, his master gave up painting and sculpting when he saw what his apprentice could do.

In around 1483 Da Vinci moved to Milan and worked as an artist, architect, and engineer. He remained in Milan until 1499 when it was invaded by the French. From there, Da Vinci went to Florence, where he is believed to have painted the famous Mona Lisa. Leonardo kept the painting from 1503, when he started it, to his deathbed in 1519, trying to get every detail right.

During that period, Leonardo dissected the human eye and was able to understand that the center of the retina sees detail, but the edges see shadows and shapes better. If you look directly at the Mona Lisa smile, the corners of the lips turn downward slightly, but shadows and light make it seem like it’s turning upwards. As you move your eyes across her face the smile flickers on and off. Leonardo Da Vinci spent much of his life wanting to be known as an engineer, put he was always primarily a painter in the eyes of his contemporaries. One of his paintings recently sold for $450 million.

From there Leonardo met Nicollo Machiavelli, who was negotiating the Florentine Republic’s safety with warmonger Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli told Borgia about Leonardo, who then became Cesare’s military engineer. During the eight months he worked for him, Da Vinci designed weapons and fortresses. A prototype crossbow designed by Da Vinci was actually reconstructed in 2002, but it did not work.

What Did Leonardo Da Vinci Contribute To Engineering:

Leonardo’s defining trait was curiosity. He was infamous for being unreliable when it came to finishing commissions, instead focusing on learning as much as he could about another new topic. He was a master of many different fields and disciplines.

Da Vinci hypothesized that the world was much older than the Bible claimed due to the formation of fossils. He wrote extensively on anatomy, geography, flight, optics, and mechanics. He is said to have studied anatomy extensively to better learn about human features. His notebooks show sketches of muscle systems in the face and lips in amazing detail. He is credited with inventing the bicycle, as well as the airplane and the helicopter some 500 years ahead of their time. Bill Gates purchased one of his notebooks for nearly $40 million, and would include some of the pages as screensavers in a Windows program.

Yet we know surprisingly little about the man himself. His many notebooks were full of diagrams, questions to be answered, and ruminations on how the world worked, but precious few facts about who he was. One of the most famous examples of his character is of a man who would buy caged birds from the marketplace only to set them free. He would wear silks of purple and pink, and host lavish dinners for friends of all kinds. Leonardo himself was vegetarian and was deeply concerned with the welfare of animals.

His legacy as a renaissance man defines our idea of genius today. Leonardo Da Vinci’s contributions to engineering, as well as the worlds of art and mathematics, are invaluable. He will likely remain as one of the greatest thinkers in human history.

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