Engineering The Future

The Codex Atlanticus, a collection of Leonardo Da Vinci's sketches and observations, is a treasure trove of futuristic contraptions and engineering feats imagined well before their time. 

Many of the images below are from the Atlantic Codex (Codex Atlanticus). Bridgeman represents more than 2000 sketches from the manuscript through the De Agostini Picture Library. The Bridgeman archive also has a great selection of reconstructions of Da Vinci's concepts.


Helicopter & the Parachute

Da Vinci's 1493 sketch of the aerial screw (left) was a concept designed to compress air to obtain flight. Utilizing the same general concept, the first practical helicopter was built by Heinrich Focke in 1936.

Although the invention of the parachute is generally attributed to Sebastein Lenormand in 1783, 300 years earlier Da Vinci had a concept for a contraption that would allow a man to 'throw himself from any height without suffering any injury.' Da Vinci never built or tested his idea, but in 2000 a British skydiver, Adrian Nicholas, successfully jumped with Da Vinci's pyramid shaped contraption.


(detail) Flying machines (pen and ink on paper), Bibliotheque de l'Institut de France, Paris / Alinari


ity and study of artificial flight, parachute and flapping wings from the Atlantic Codex



Automobile & Machine Gun

It is thought that Da Vinci developed the coiled spring-propelled cart for theatrical use. His futuristic looking cart was a precursor to the automobile, with its steering and brake capabilities. Oliver Evans would invent the first steam-powered land vehicle in 1789, Jean-Joseph-Etienne Lenoir would create a 'horseless carriage' using an internal combustion engine and in 1900, Henry Ford would introduce the first commercial automobile.

As a pacifist, it is ironic that Da Vinci studied weapons and warfare so intently. Prior to being employed by Cesare Borgia in the early 16th century, Da Vinci sketched many weapon concepts. One such concept was the 33 barreled organ, which allowed soldiers to repeatedly fire without interruption. The first practical machine gun, called the Puckle Gun, was developed in 1718 by James Puckle but commercial use of the technology didn't get traction until the 19th century.

Lantern gears, toothed rods and screws, from the Atlantic Codex


Rotating shaft with weapons, bombards and cannon from the Atlantic Codex


Cluster Bomb

The first operational use of 'cluster' munitions was by Germany, Russia and the United States during WWII. The 'butterfly' bomb as some were known, ejected explosive bomblets from the larger munition, which made it particularly deadly for troops and civilians alike. Da Vinci's work as a military engineer in the late 15th century spawned many concepts designed to improve soldier's mobility, and to inflict the most damage from the furthest distance. An example is this multi-barreled cannon (below).


Mortar from the Atlantic Codex

Robot & Scuba Gear

Although his self-propelled cart is considered by some to be the first robot, Da Vinci also created many sketches of parts to make a robotic soldier. Only a few of the fragments have been recovered, one example being the illustration (left) of the anatomy of the neck with the muscles depicted like the rigging of a ship. Using Da Vinci's notes, roboticist Mark Rosheim built a model in 2002 which NASA has adapted for its planetary exploration robots.

While in Venice in 1500, Da Vinci drew a concept for a contraption that would allow for sneak underwater attacks. His scuba suit included a balloon that could be inflated or deflated for surfacing or sinking, tubes attached to a diving bell on the surface for air intake (right), and even included a bag for the diver to urinate in! After Cornelius Drebbel invented the first 'rebreather' in 1620, the technology went virtually undeveloped until the late 19th century.

The anatomy of the neck, c.1512-13 (pen and ink on blue paper)/ Royal Collection, UK


Study of a floater with breathing tubes for a diver from the Codex Arundel (pen & ink on paper)



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