Da Vinci Demos
by Jack Foran
Leonardo’s inventions constructed at Buffalo Museum of Science
Working models of Leonardo da Vinci’s numerous inventions and mechanisms are currently on display at the Buffalo Museum of Science. They range from an impractical but still magnificent bat-wing flying apparatus to a walk-in scale model of a military tank.
The tank was for the Renaissance warlord princes that were his patrons. The flying apparatus was pure personal obsession. Human flight was the ultimate object of all his technological efforts and achievements.
In both areas, Leonardo was about 400 years ahead of his time. Tanks were first developed and utilized in World War I, about the same time as human flight was accomplished. Both modern developments had the advantage of an internal combustion power source. Leonardo’s bat-wing flight apparatus was powered by the muscle energy of a single human, which was part of why it couldn’t work. The military tank was powered by four men, one turning each of the tank’s four wheels by means of gearing combinations that would have multiplied their muscle power. It looks like this might have worked, at least on reasonably smooth terrain.
The models on display are recent constructions based on designs and descriptions in Leonardo’s copious notebooks, about 30,000 pages of which exist in libraries and archives around the world.
The exhibit is about Leonardo’s remarkable machines, but at a deeper level about his nonpareil genius. His genius—manifest in the imaginativeness and inventiveness of the machines—seems best explained in terms of the commonalities he saw—the depth of his vision and understanding of commonalities—among all physical and spiritual reality.
The commonality first of all of the elements in a literal sense—earth, air, fire, and water, as Renaissance science denominated and numerated them—but then also in an extended sense of elements as components—including, notably, the component man—of the universe and its governing physics and mathematical laws.
The inspiration for the machines came from his innovational studies of the workings of nature (as also illustrated and described in the notebooks).
He recognized the commonality of the air and the water as media. The air moves like a river, he said. So that the mechanisms of birds (or bats) were like the mechanisms of fish.
And recognized the element of fire as essentially a machine that converted one form of matter (or energy) into another.
Machines are basically energy conversion mechanisms. Many of the machines on display were apparatus for converting linear energy into rotary, and vice versa.
But the ultimate commonality was that between man and the universe, in terms of symmetry and proportion, and physics and math. As illustrated in his so-called Vitruvian Man drawing of a human figure precisely inscribed in a circle and a square. Man as a combination and synthesis of the material (the square, for the four elements) and spiritual (the circle, for infinity) aspects of the Renaissance universe. The idea of the universe as infinite was new in the Renaissance.
(The problem of the proportionality of the square and the circle was an ancient mathematical conundrum. Dante’s solution in the Middle Ages, the image of the squared circle, was God. Leonardo’s solution in the Renaissance was man.)
Some of the inventions—ingenious though they were in the 16th century, a hundred years before Galileo—now seem a little like garden variety engineering solutions. Combinations of pulleys (including multiple pulleys) and ropes and ratchets. Multiple gear-wheel mechanisms. Cranes of several sorts.
Then there are the truly radical inventions. The ball bearing. The flywheel energy storage device (also called a spinning battery). And in the technological illustration area, the exploded-view diagram.
Also in the beyond ingenious category, an arched bridge military personnel escape-from-the-enemy device, using no ropes or connective hardware, just lumber—sticks, essentially—notched like Lincoln Logs.
He also made toys. Such as a mechanical bird that flaps its wings to “fly” along a wire, for theatrical productions for the patron princes when they weren’t making war and other mayhem.
He also invented the bicycle-type drive chain. Though not the bicycle. The exhibit also features some pseudo-Leonardo, namely, a forged drawing from one of his notebooks of an early form of bicycle, from not before, or much before, the 19th century.
The exhibit includes two excellent videos, an overview life and times of Leonardo from the History Channel, and one on the Vitruvian Man drawing.
This superb exhibit was created in Florence, Italy, and has been traveling, initially to various European locations, and now to the Americas. Captions and explanations are in English and Spanish, which is good to see.
The Leonardo exhibit continues at the Buffalo Museum of Science through August 28.
—jack foranblog comments powered by Disqus
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