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  • Heidi M. Brun

Leonardo da Vinci and Engineering Art


Some time ago, we saw the da Vinci exhibit, a traveling exhibit honoring and showing the works of Leonardo da Vinci. It was an amazing exhibit, full of his fascinating machines and beautiful artworks. But I found it a bit strange. I felt like the exhibit couldn’t decide if it was a museum of science or a museum of art.

The exhibit starts with da Vinci’s many inventions and then moves to his belle art and specifically, to the Mona Lisa. This is a very strange shift and, as far as I know, da Vinci is the only artist who did both. The traditional answer is that he was a Renaissance man and thus, dabbled in many subjects.

But I think that da Vinci was the first person to utilize the newly determined principles of perspective to machinery rather than to the elements of a scene in a painting. Painters had drawn architecture as the background of a scene, but, as far as I know, no one before da Vinci had used perspective to draw a plan of a building or of a piece of machinery before it was built. This is what we have in Leonardo’s many notebooks – pages and pages of thinking about machinery, most of which were never built in his lifetime and only came to life in our time, in the da Vinci exhibit.

Writing may have given the world the ability to communicate ideas and Gutenberg may have enabled those ideas to be distributed to many people. But da Vinci gave the world the ability to communicate how to build ideas, how to build inventions, how to build machines.

This is HUGE! The ability to communicate the design of a machine enables the machine to be copied and spread throughout the world and reduces the need for apprentices to work directly with a master in order to learn a field.

In a book I read recently, A History of Mechanical Inventions, the author, Abbot Payson Usher, discusses mechanical inventions from early times to the 20th century. For mechanical devices before da Vinci, Usher often makes the comment that we don’t really know how the devices worked because the drawings left to us do not give us sufficient information. The pictures are either too flat or are drawn to show a scene rather than to illustrate the mechanical device of interest.

Leonardo da Vinci changed that. For whatever reason, he did what no other painter did – he used his drawing ability for everything he did and not just for painting or sketching. He used his drawing ability to help him understand how things worked. And from that, he used it to draw devices which he saw first in his mind.

While belle art shows a scene, engineering art shows an idea that can be built. Engineering art allowed da Vinci to explore ideas for machines before he built them. Some of the devices in the da Vinci exhibit aren’t practical. But that is the point – they were just a sketch of a machine to see if the machine would work.

The curators of the da Vinci exhibit built them all from da Vinci’s sketches, since his sketches were detailed enough.

And this is why the da Vinci exhibit also had the Mona Lisa. Because Leonardo drew, both whatever he saw and whatever he needed to build. Because, instead of writing, he drew his ideas.

And because of Leonardo da Vinci, we have a patent regime. Because with the ability to draw mechanical ideas, came the ability to share mechanical ideas and the consequent ability to prove that the mechanical idea was yours.

More than that, patents provide a tit-for-tat – the patents teach the world how to make the invention and the government gives a limited monopoly in exchange. But, without the ability to show your idea sufficiently so that someone else can make it without your being there to give instructions, patents wouldn’t work. That is the legacy that we have from Leonardo da Vinci – engineering art and the subsequent ability to transfer engineering knowledge in drawings.

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