In the words of Isaac Asimov, “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world” (“Isaac Asimov Quote”, n.d.). Engineers have been world changers, by trade, throughout history. Contributions from the field of engineering have shaped the modern landscape, and have continuously improved the quality of life for humans on earth. Today, an engineer can be generally defined as: one who makes ethical, practical applications with the knowledge of sciences, as in the construction, maintenance, and development of technology (“Engineering”, n.d.). While very philosophical and diverse in nature, engineering goals and motivation stem from a desire to use, economically, Earth’s materials, concepts, and forces in order to optimize life quality for its inhabitants. Perhaps, it is the goals of an engineer that best describe his or her role in society.
One of the most notable figures in engineering history is Leonardo da Vinci. However, da Vinci was not strictly an engineer; he was an artist, designer, draftsman, and mechanism. Perhaps, it was this unique blend of qualities that allowed him to become, arguably, the most impactful engineer in history. Over the course of his career as a multifaceted innovator, da Vinci produced thousands of mechanical drawings which addressed many challenges facing mankind, both in his time and in years way beyond his measure. It was through these engineering drawings that da Vinci was able to communicate his earth-shattering ideas and concepts to the world. Three specific areas that have been influenced by da Vinci’s drawings include human anatomy, flight, and war. This paper will analyze da Vinci’s remarkable efforts in these three areas in order to verify the claim that he has significantly influenced and contributed to the contemporary field of engineering.
Da Vinci’s Mechanical Drawings
As mentioned earlier, Leonardo da Vinci was an exceptional artist, with as little as a mere glance at his Mona Lisa portrait being enough to prove even the strongest of doubters otherwise. However, as much as he used his artistic talent for visual appeal, da Vinci’s artwork regarding engineering concepts, design, and ideas are more likely his most important ones. The reason being: da Vinci’s engineering drawings have impacted humanity in ways much more drastic than his artwork. They opened up the doors to human flight, allowed the average person to become more anatomically knowledgeable about his or herself, have revolutionized the way human conflicts are settled and have therefore enhanced the quality of life for his earthly brothers and sisters. An analysis of da Vinci’s engineering drawings pertaining to flight, human anatomy, and war shows that he has had a very crucial role in influencing engineering innovation in the modern world.
The first way in which da Vinci significantly impacted the contemporary engineering field is through his mechanical drawings regarding ideas about inventing machines that would enable human flight. Much of his inspiration to fly stemmed from an interest in birds and how their anatomy enables them to effortlessly maneuver in the air. This interest powered da Vinci to publish a codex in 1506, revealing some 35,000 words and over 500 sketches regarding his research on the nature of air, bird flight, and mechanical flying machines (“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds”, n.d.). In it, da Vinci embedded thousands of observations, ideas, and concepts, some of which would go on to and enable the Wright Brothers to produce the first airplane four centuries later.
The first of da Vinci’s flying device drawings were centered around ornithopters. His design drafts depict machines that had flapping wings capable of raising and launching human pilots through the air. The machine concept was based on the flight mechanics of birds, which da Vinci studied vigorously while writing his codex. However, da Vinci’s ornithopters could never work. His designs contained a fatal misconception that rendered each and every one of his ornithopter models useless. Relative to birds, humans have severely limited muscle power and endurance (“Leonardo’s Codex on the Flight of Birds”, n.d.). For decades, da Vinci remained stumped in his mission to achieve human flight.
It was not until many years later when he re-addressed his challenge with fresh eyes, that da Vinci would have massive breakthroughs in his flying machine drawings. Using his early understanding of aerodynamics and aeronautics, and concepts such as drag, lift, and stall, da Vinci designed a new machine that approached flight from a new angle. He created parachutes that could generate lift the same way in which the wings of a bird enable them to glide through the air (“Leonardo’s Codex on the Flight of Birds”, n.d.). With this new model, da Vinci successfully overcame a challenge that plagued him for years and set up a world of future discoveries in aeronautics for later generations.
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Concepts da Vinci hinted at in his codex, such as gravity, drag, and lift, became formally recognized many years later, which speaks volumes about his role as a visionary. He virtually laid down the foundation for the study and application of aerodynamics and aeronautics, the fields which inevitably realized his initial dream. Today, aerospace engineers continue to build off of da Vinci’s extraordinary discoveries and concepts, albeit working towards creating flying devices that can fly at speeds that even da Vinci would never deem imaginable in his time. Nonetheless, the contemporary engineering field would not be where it is today without the significant contributions it was provided by da Vinci through his engineering drawings regarding the human flight.
Another way that Leonardo da Vinci let his artistic and engineering talents influence the world is through his study of human anatomy. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is unknown when exactly da Vinci began having an interest in dissecting human bodies, but clues suggest he began during his days living in Milan, which was a medical powerhouse in his era (“Anatomical Studies”, n.d.). His independent research began as a platform for artwork inspiration, but later became the focal point of an era in which da Vinci would produce thousands of drafts and engineering drawings that depicted images of the human body unseen to anyone before. His mix of artistic ability, engineering motivation, and keen eye enabled him to begin the rapid advancement in medical knowledge and technology that continually works to improve human quality of life.
His research began with the musculoskeletal system. Da Vinci combined his hands-on discoveries with his knowledge of mechanics to derive many concepts that described the human body as a mechanical system, which we know today is correct. He eventually made his way to each component of the human body, paying special attention to the heart, lungs, and brain, which he regarded as the, “motors of the senses and of life” (“Anatomical Studies”, n.d. para. 2). Over the span of two decades and 30 corpses (“Anatomical Studies”, n.d.), Da Vinci carefully created thousands of engineering drawings based off of his observations that presented human anatomy in ways remarkable for the era, and are now famously known as the “Anatomical Drawings”.
Specific drawings in his collection include: “The Vitruvian Man”, “The Skull”, “Skeleton Foot”, and “Anatomical Studies”. These masterful creations are a small part of Leonardo da Vinci’s futuristic engineering and medical studies portfolio, which would go on to be one of the most noteworthy accomplishments in science during the Italian Renaissance Era. Therefore, in these ways, it is made clear that Leonardo da Vinci used his artistic, draftsman, and engineering talents to produce mechanical drawings of human anatomy that have impacted medical sciences and contemporary engineering in a significant manner.
Thirdly, Leonardo da Vinci exercised his expert drawing, drafting, and engineering talents when he made significant impacts in the field of combat, weaponry, and war. For much of his life, da Vinci roamed from city to city searching for a city that would qualify as a provider of beautiful art inspiration, and a welcoming audience for his unique blend of talents. He spent the early part of his career in his native Florence, Italy, before abruptly packing up shop and departing for Milan, Italy, where the Duke of Milan stood yearning for a new court artist. Da Vinci won the post after presenting himself as, “skilled in many crafts, but particularly in military engineering” (“Leonardo da Vinci Biography”, n.d.). However, the Duke never really gave da Vinci a chance to flourish as the military engineer Leonardo knew he was. It was not until years later, in 1502, that da Vinci met and was employed by Cesare Borgia, the ruthless leader of the Pope’s army (Sparknotes Editors, 2005), and was truly given the chance to introduce his masterful war strategies with the world. Borgia made da Vinci his chief military engineer and simultaneously began da Vinci’s journey in designing futuristic war machines that would be passed down from generation to generation and impact the resolution of human conflicts, forever.
Although a pacifist at heart, Borgia’s rule empowered da Vinci to invent the most violent of weapons if it would translate to battlefield success. Interestingly enough, da Vinci arrived into Borgia’s command with plenty of unreleased, secret, military creations that were neglected by his previous patrons. During his time as an observer of the Venetian war with the Ottoman Empire, da Vinci and his concepts of mobile dams and diving apparatus (modern-day scuba gear) were rejected by the unconvinced military leaders of the time (SparkNotes Editors, 2005). Under Borgia, however, da Vinci’s ideas were encouraged and an extensive period of weapon design began. His mechanical design portfolio developed into a bible for military commanders. It contained inventions such as the 33-barrelled organ cannon, the armored car, the giant crossbow, the triple-barrelled cannon, the robotic knight, and the revolving bridge (“Famous Inventions”, n.d.). While only some of these inventions made it into production during his lifetime, da Vinci’s work inspired a host of future military development. His multi-barrelled cannons set the stage for machine guns; his armored car set the stage for tanks; his giant crossbow set the stage for rifles. Without question, his early concepts in weaponry had a monumental influence on the way future wars would be settled, paving the path for today’s military engineering field.
Da Vinci’s contributions to uncovering the fields of flight, human anatomy, and military technology present overwhelming evidence to suggest that he has significantly impacted and influenced the contemporary engineering field in its entirety. Truly, da Vinci used his extraordinary artistic, drafting, and engineering talents to help him accomplish the main goal of an engineer: to use, economically, Earth’s materials, concepts, and forces in order to optimize the quality of life for its inhabitants. His research and early understanding of aerodynamics opened the doors for aeronautical travel. His study of the human body allowed him to create world-renowned anatomical drawings unearthing the incredible potential of medical sciences which is still being realized today. Further, his innate gift in designing battlefield technology began a new age in war, resulting in the rapid evolution of global conflict resolution, political power, and military engineering. Without a doubt, Leonardo da Vinci actively employed his engineering prowess, making immense enhancements to the engineering profession and society alike. By trade, da Vinci was a visionary and an engineer, whose life proves that while science can amuse and fascinate us all, it is engineering that changes the world.