In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today, in an exhibit at London's Science Museum.
It took a whole day for a team of museum technicians to assemble a life-size model of a construction crane, built according to da Vinci’s 15th-century drawings. A quick demonstration testified to its efficiency in moving heavy objects.
The genesis of some of the devices we use today can be seen in sketches that da Vinci made. For instance, a wind-powered chariot he designed was never built, but it incorporated gears, something that we use every day in our cars.
“It is the drawing, the understanding and the imagination that is important,” said Jim Bennett, keeper emeritus of collections at the Science Museum.
Fascinated by nature’s solutions to complicated mechanical problems, such as birds’ flight, da Vinci envisioned contraptions along the lines of the bat’s skeleton. They did not work, but the basic principle behind his parachute or the helicopter is still valid.
“He said nature made the most perfect inventions. There is nothing superfluous, there is nothing lacking,” said Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at the University of Oxford.
Another revolutionary idea was a leather diving suit that's not much different from today’s heavy diving gear, together with air supply hoses and waist ballast.
Studying mechanical principles, da Vinci designed many useful devices, such as a machine for twisting ropes or a crane used to build canals, that greatly improved the efficiency of Renaissance craftsmen.
“It shows an aspect of Leonardo's sheer fertility of thinking, this extraordinary inventiveness," Kemp said. "Whether he is inventing disciples for a last supper or a flying machine, he has got this amazing, amazing imagination.”
Da Vinci’s rotating 33-barrel cannon never left the drawing board, but five centuries later, it evolved into multiple-rocket launchers.
The exhibition at the Science Museum will run until September 4. It shows once more how much the great scientist, artist and inventor was ahead of his time.