I have plans for destroying every fortress … and ships, which can resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon … I can make armored cars…”
That’s Leonardo da Vinci, asking the Duke of Milan for a job. ten years before Columbus discovered America.
Leonardo got that job. He went to Milan to make huge bronze statues, giant cathedrals, enormous canals, secret tunnels, and a bristling host of giant, terrifying, remarkably sadistic war machines. Leonardo had plenty of plans — volumes full of them, plans stuffed in the margins of his plans. But Leonardo never shipped the products. He never made any of those things.
In practice. Leonardo mostly made ingenious special effects for festival entertainments. His glamorous stage shows for dukes and kings were the main reason these worthies kept him around. Leonardo also painted masterpieces, but reluctantly and not very many. Nowadays his paintings are what’s left to us to see. The royal festival entertainments vanished like soap bubbles, as soon as his amazed contemporaries stopped saying. “Wow!”
As for his glorious cities, super-machines, and giant canals … some were possible, barely. But making them required an aggressive, full-scale engineering outfit like General Dynamics or Halliburton, not a visionary wizard in a velvet hat. The Renaissance couldn’t work that way. because no mere king or duke could give Leonardo a budget that size, or that many resources in men and materials. His ideas were glorious — too glorious to have a business model.
«Wow» is the unifying theme that runs through the great man’s scatterbrained interests in anatomy, human flight, submarines, mathematics, physics, and hydrodynamics. Leonardo sketched tens of thou¬sands of fantasy machines, from ball bearings to gigantic cranes, yet somehow, they always stay on one message: “Leonardo is amazing.» His notebooks are an endless series of air-guitar solos in a world that hasn’t yet invented orchestras.
Leonardo’s a one-man show. When Leonardo envisions a super-cannon, it’s a multi-barreled blunderbuss that one guy can use to destroy an army. When he imagines an airplane, it’s one guy soaring on batwings. His submarine is one guy secretly drowning an entire ship full of enemies. When his giant war chariot chops a company of soldiers like wheat in a combine harvester, you just know that the victims will be forced to wonder. “Who the heck did this to us? He must be some kind a genius!”
A dredge is a machine for digging with a big scoop. Most of us would consider a dredge to be a very practical, roughneck, and muddy kind of machine. A Leonardo dredge is not just a big shovel with pulleys. It’s a splendid altar to canal digging, a showy, towering enterprise whose nifty gearings must attract public attention for miles around. Canals are supposed to be handy waterways where people can ship stuff in boats. Leonardo’s canals, extensively planned but never built, are Leonardo’s personal adornments to the map of Italy, a kind of environmental art installation.
When Leonardo explores human anatomy, healing other people is the last thing on his mind. It’s all about his need to figure out how human flesh works; it’s got nothing to do with him trying to cure people or give them any kind of benefit. Even his dead cadavers seem surprised and impressed by him: “Wow! Look! Leonardo cut me open and learned my anatomical secrets!» In his autopsy
Leonardo sketched tens of thousands of fantasy machines, from ball-bearings to gigantic cranes, yet somehow, they always stay on one message: “Leonardo is amazing.” work. Leonardo radiates hackerly glee at having pulled off a scary, little-known, semi-legal, very difficult stunt.
Leonardo is always particularly eager to do amazing things that any normal guy would consider impossible. So quite a few of his coolest inventions really are impossible. It’s not that Leonardo is ever a fraud — for instance, he manages to figure out. from his own researches, that perpetual motion is a swindle. That’s a genuine tribute to his common sense. But the science of physics hasn’t been invented yet. so Leonardo has no way to calculate how much energy his imaginary machines require to run.
Leonardo sketches out ingenious systems of worm gears, cranks, and ratchets — spinning wheels, counterweights, giant timber beams — but where’s the engine? In Leonardo’s world the “engine» is usually a solo guy. He’s the ideal Leonardo engine worker, and when Leonardo sketches him out. he’s commonly this tiny little guy in the corner — half-naked, firmly muscled, and really getting into his labors.
He looks pretty much like Charlie Chaplin trapped by machinery in Modern Times, but full of Renaissance. When it comes to a really tough job. like flying. Leonardo will put four guys on the job. Leonardo’s helicopter has four guys running around pushing capstans and driving a big paper screw up into the air. In reality, those four guys would have to be four 200-horsepower aircraft engines.
What Leonardo needed, to make his dreams leave paper and take flight, was the Industrial Revolution. He never got one. because that was centuries away.
What Leonardo’s fate was to become was what he had most wanted to be. all along — Leonardo from Vinci, an Officially Amazing Guy. He finally died, much respected and pampered, in the entourage of the King of France. The King never asked Leonardo to do anything much or carry out any practical assignment. It was more than enough for the King just to listen to Leonardo ranting about the amazing stuff he’d figured out.
Leonardo was blazingly eager to do incredible things, using secret techniques he had learned himself. demonstrated in as public and showy a way as possible. For Leonardo, that’s what technology was all about. So he was an engineer. And mostly an artist. But above all. an ego-driven, visionary entrepreneur. Bill Gates owns his codices. Leonardo da Vinci was the father of the modern geek.