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Da Vinci, the Engineer


We all know Leonardo Da Vinci as the famous Italian Renaissance painter behind the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, but you may not know that he was also a prolific inventor and, by modern standards, an engineer. Da Vinci was constantly sketching and planning new contraptions, from parachutes and flying machines to musical instruments, many of which would not be realized for hundreds of years after his death.

Recently Discovery Channel News reported that Da Vinci had yet another unrealized masterpiece in his oeuvre: the flawless design of a colossal horse statue. For a long time historians and engineers thought that the horse had never been made because of technical difficulties, however recently researchers have discovered that this was not the case. Leonardo’s ingenious bronze casting system was perfect, and, had he had sufficient materials to make the statue, it would have likely succeeded.

In 1482 the Duke of Milan comissioned Leonardo to build the largest equestrian statue in the world, which would act as a monument to the Duke’s father. Leonardo spent over 20 years perfecting the design and the casting process, a difficult challenge considering the scale of the project (the horse was to stand 24 feet and weigh over 70 tons). In the end he managed to make a clay model, but invading French soldiers destroyed it in 1499. Here’s an animated visualization of Leonardo’s work:

YouTube Preview Image

A number of efforts have been made to produce modern to-scale replicas of Leonardo’s horse. One now stands in Milan, and two are located in the U.S (in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia).


Leonardo’s horse replica in Milan (San Siro hippodrome)

Other engineering projects of Da Vinci’s included cannons and tanks to be used in battle, gliders based on the wings of bats, and mechanical bridges and hydraulics systems. While many of these endeavors remained incomplete due to a lack of resources, today there has been a revived interest in seeing these amazing machines realized.


Replica of Da Vinci’s flying machine in London, 2006

You can see modern replicas of some of Leonardo’s inventions in a travelling exhibit called Da Vinci the Genius, currently in Tampa, Florida. Go here for more information.

Image: Milan horse from goatling/Flickr

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