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Leonardo da Vinci’s Unfinished Innovations

Leonardo da Vinci is the quintessential renaissance man. Though most famous for his paintings, his talent as an engineer and inventor was centuries ahead of its time. While his drawing ability shone through in his detailed designs, one quality he did not have was a narrow-minded focus, and, as a result, many of his plans were never built. His creations included drawings from multiple angles and detailed notes on their function, but more of them don’t have any instructions at all. Today, we’re going to discuss Leonardo’s most impressive and well-developed ideas and innovations.

War Machines

Leonardo openly spoke of his disdain for war. He was a peace-loving vegetarian who felt that war wasted not only the lives of those killed but also the talents of people like himself, who could use their skills for more constructive matters. However, the man needed to put food on the table. Many of the wealthiest patrons of his time were more intrigued with inventions that could win them wars instead of the hearts and minds of their people, so Leonardo spent much of his early career devising military machines.


While working for Ludovico Sforza in the 1480s, Leonardo drew a design for a giant crossbow, with an armature 80 feet (24 m) wide and a carriage 80 feet (24 m) long. The timing was strange for such an invention, as, in the late 15th-century, Italian armies were already firing gunpowder-powered cannons at each other, and they were working quite well. But these massive cannons had a few shortcomings, mainly that they were incredibly heavy, challenging to move, and expensive to operate. Leonardo believed that his giant crossbow would solve all of these problems.

The main challenge was to maximize the amount of force with which it could fire projectiles, made more difficult because there weren’t accurate equations for calculating force at that time. Da Vinci’s initial assumption was that the power depended on the distance that the bowstring was drawn backward. However, he realized that this was incorrect and that the force depended more on the angle of the bowstring when drawn back, so he focused his design on allowing for the smallest acute angle possible.

Given the massive scale, the drawn bow’s tension would splinter most wood, so Leonardo designed it with interlocking layers, now called laminated wood. This design allowed for more flexibility and let the bow resist the incredible amounts of tension needed to produce to wield any destructive power. Speaking of deadly force, Da Vinci’s projectiles of choice were large rocks or other heavy objects, though it could have fired large bolts or arrows too.

The crossbow was supported by six wheels, which, combined with its lightweight frame (compared to a cannon), allowed for relative ease of mobility. While it likely couldn’t have been moved by one person, the crossbow sketches included a single soldier operating it on his own. The design included a hand crank attached to a rope which drew the bowstring backward along the carriage with a gear and screw system. We can’t know whether a single person could operate it, but we can be sure that it would’ve been exhausting work.

The First Tank

Though he created few iterations, Leonardo’s depictions of a rudimentary tank included great details. His design called for a conical shape, circular at its base and slanting upwards to a single point. Its sturdy wooden frame would have supported thick metal armor to protect from enemy projectiles, but this was not a strictly defensive structure. It’s interior was spacious enough to fit eight men, four of whom would fire cannons out of small holes in the shell.

The other four men would be responsible for turning the tank’s wheels with a hand crank, a feat made more difficult by the immense weight of the cannons. Leonardo’s design included a fundamental mistake, as the cranks and wheels rotated in opposite directions, rendering it completely immobile. Researchers believe this mistake was intentional on Leonardo’s part as an attempt to render the killing machine obsolete, but, even if the wheels did work properly, the massive vehicle would have struggled to move across all but the smoothest and flattest terrain.

Flying Machines

Perhaps the area of ingenuity that Leonardo is most famous for today is flight. Da Vinci was obsessed with flight, spending countless hours and hundreds of pages observing and sketching birds and bugs to determine what made them capable of flight. While da Vinci’s two-winged flying machine is the most well-known of his flight attempts, he designed many other gravity-defying contraptions.

The Aerial Screw and Other Pre-Helicopters

The Aerial screw Da Vinci.By Citron / CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout his life, Leonardo designed several versions of rudimentary helicopters. The earliest, inspired by dragonfly’s wings, included two pairs of oar-like blades protruding in opposite directions. According to Da Vinci’s biographer Walter Isaacson, the machine required the operator to “use his legs to push pedals, his arms to crank a gear-and-pulley mechanism, his head to pump a piston, and his shoulders to pull cables.” Leonardo must have realized that this machine would have been impossible to operate or that it simply couldn’t create enough lift, because he quickly moved on to more straightforward and practical designs.

Leonardo’s later iteration often referred to as the aerial screw, hit much closer to the mark. Unlike the helicopter’s multi-blade design, the aerial screw included a single thick linen “blade” that wound around a central beam. The central shaft, attached to both the frame of the structure and the blade with reed and wire, could be wound up and released, unleashing the screw and, theoretically, propelling the machine upwards. Leonardo’s design would have been too heavy to generate enough flight power, especially when including the four operators’ weight. However, the plan still played an essential role in the history of aviation and engineering. First, it inspired Igor Sikorsky, a 20th-century aviator who pioneered the use of the rotary blade for helicopters. Second, the design incorporated a ball bearing to reduce friction between the screw and its base. This innovation has been incorporated into hundreds of machines, from fans and engines to bicycles and kitchen appliances.

Winged Flying Machines

Perhaps the most famous of all of Leonardo’s designs is his winged flying machine. Leonardo produced hundreds of drawings that dissected the shape and structure of bird and bat wings, both of which heavily influenced his designs. The countless hours of study must have paid off because several of his compositions have been built in modern times. With minor modifications, they actually work, just not in the way that Da Vinci likely imagined. Despite being widely-known as flying machines, a more accurate name would be gliding machines.

His most developed and famous drawing of a winged machine included a wingspan of 33 feet. The frame would be made of pine, and the membrane would be a layer of silk stretched across the frame. The operator would lie face-down, somewhat similar to modern hang gliders, with his hands on two separate control sticks, each attached to one wing. The wings would also connect to two foot-pedals, generating extra lift.

However, Da Vinci created a more effective, yet less visually impressive glider that didn’t include the complicated wing-flapping mechanisms of the “flying machine.” This simpler glider was even more like a hang glider in many ways, as it had a single spade-shaped sail. A team from the BBC built this glider in 2008 and proved that the design was sound enough to glide safely for minutes at a time.

The Parachute

Leonardo’s most structurally sound not-quite-flying machine was a highly functional parachute, which he designed three centuries before the first one was built. Da Vinci was not the first person to conceptualize a parachute, but he was the first to understand the scale required to keep someone in the air. Perhaps inspired by an Italian designer who drew a small conical parachute, Leonardo slightly tweaked the design to form a pyramid instead of a cone.

In his own words, “If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards (11 meters) on each side and 12 yards (11 meters) high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury.” The frame of the parachute would be made with light wood to provide structure without too much weight.

Like most of his creations, da Vinci never built his parachute. However, the exact design has been tested twice in modern times and proven to be structurally sound, even from heights of 1500 feet (457 meters).

Renaissance technology was nowhere near advanced enough to allow for human flight, mostly because building materials were too heavy, and engines only existed in the most rudimentary forms. Still, Leonardo was able to conceive of predecessors almost all modern forms of air transport, including gliders, parachutes, helicopters, and, to a lesser extent, airplanes.

The Ideal City

Da Vinci’s rise as an artist and engineer came just after the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. Leonardo realized that the typical layout of a Renaissance city directly contributed to the plague’s spread, so he designed a new town to improve sanitation and livability. The first and most pressing issue was  Milan’s large population. Leonardo used Milan as an example for his design, though it applied to other Renaissance metropolises. His strategy was to relocate Milan’s entire population into ten smaller cities along the Ticino River, but this was just the start.

To optimize the city’s public health and beauty, Leonardo designed a sewage system that would sit beneath the streets. Each street would slant by six inches from its edges to its center, where inch-wide drains would run up and down the middle of the roads. The design included a state-of-the-art hydraulic system to provide access to clean water in every household, another innovation that would improve sanitation.

Besides improving sanitation, Da Vinci also wanted to design a beautiful city that allowed people and goods to flow freely. The key to achieving this was to create a multi-tiered city. Buildings would be several stories tall, with services, trade, and transport of goods taking place on the ground level. Outside the buildings, the streets would be as broad as the buildings were tall, a functional and visually appealing design that allows for free flow caravans and maximum exposure to the sun, while also reducing the risk of earthquake damage. Buildings would include stairways on the exterior, saving room on the interior. In the 20th century, architects and engineers around the world adopted Leonardo’s exterior stair design.

These staircases connected to elevated walkways between buildings, allowing citizens to walk comfortably between homes without clogging the streets and saving room for carts and horses on the ground level. The upper level would give way to magnificent views of “high strong walls” with “towers and battlements of all necessary and pleasant beauty.” His design also called for “the sublimity and magnificence of a holy temple,” which could be seen from “the convenient composition of private homes.”

While Leonardo’s cities were never built, they inspired many western and southern European cities, including Paris, his late-life home, which follows many of Leonardo’s principles for a beautiful, balanced city.

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