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5 visionary inventions by Leonardo da Vinci

In the history of humankind, there are few people who have rivaled the sheer genius of Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian polymath defined the High Renaissance period at the turn of the 16th century, when his fame grew primarily due to his paintings. His magnum opus, the “Mona Lisa,” which he painted between 1503 and 1506, ranks among the most famous paintings of all time, and no religious artwork has been more reproduced than his masterpiece “The Last Supper.” 

But Leonardo was far more than a supremely talented artist. As an engineer, inventor, and student of seemingly everything, he left behind an incredible 5,000 pages of notes and drawings covering everything from human and animal anatomy to astronomy, botany, cartography, and more. His inventions, many of which were designed with military applications in mind, were truly visionary. Few of them were built during his lifetime or saw any practical use, but they were so far ahead of their time it’s almost as if Leonardo was seeing aspects of the modern world long before they came to fruition. Here are five of his greatest creations — designs that display the undeniable genius of the ultimate Renaissance man.

Ornithopter: da Vinci’s flying machine

Some 400 years before the Wright brothers took flight in the first successful motor-operated airplane, Leonardo da Vinci was already designing flying machines. He wasn’t the first to do this, but he was the most thorough and inventive. He studied the flight of birds and bats, which he used to inform the design of his ornithopter — a device that flies by flapping its winged appendages. Leonardo never built his design, but his ideas regarding flying machines, bird flight, and the nature of air itself were centuries ahead of their time. His studies, which consisted of more than 35,000 words and 500 sketches, included conceptssuch as the nature of stalling in flight, the relationship between a curved wing section and lift, and the concept of air as a fluid. Incredibly, he even came close to suggesting the force that Isaac Newton would later define as gravity. Leonardo’s fascination with flight also led him to design a primitive parachute and a device known as a “helical air screw,” which bears some similarities to a helicopter. 

Self-propelled cart: Ancestor of the automobile

Giving motion to otherwise inanimate objects was one of Leonardo’s main interests. “The motive power,” he once wrote, “is the cause of all life.” This interest drove him to create what can be considered the ancestor of the modern car. Using a complex system of springs and a mechanism similar to a differential (allowing the turning angle to be set), Leonardo’s designs for a self-propelled cart were well ahead of their time, though he never actually built his invention. In fact, for centuries, it was generally thought that the device he sketched in 1478 would never work. Later studies, however, found that the cart could function, and the first working model was built in 2004

Self-supporting bridge design was used in his own time

Leonardo designed many bridges during his lifetime. Some, such as his flattened arch bridge, were highly ambitious — had it been built, it would have been about 10 times longer than typical bridges of his day. Others were intricate, perhaps most notably his revolving bridge, with its lattice structure and counterweighted construction. But it was one of his simplest designs that proved the most effective. His self-supporting bridge was a portable wooden construction built from wooden poles with no need for screws or other fastenings. The bridge supported itself and became more stable as more pressure was added. Unlike many of Leonardo’s designs, this one was used in his own time, by the Milanese military. 

The diving suit

The diving suit is another example of one of Leonardo’s creations being too bold and innovative for his time, but strangely predictive of future technology. More than two centuries before the development of the first pressure-resisting diving suits, the Renaissance inventor drew up plans for a diving suit that would, in theory, allow military divers to attack enemy ships from beneath the waves. Pipes connected the suit to a floating device, giving the diver access to air. This severely limited the range and depth of the suit, so Leonardo later considered installing bags of air directly on the suit. The suit was never used, but with its face mask and goggles, it closely resembled the diving suits that were designed centuries later. 

Armored vehicle: Prototype of the modern tank

Leonardo’s military designs included a ludicrously large crossbow intended for launching boulders and a truly terrifying 33-barreled cannon (a precursor of the modern machine gun). But arguably his most forward-thinking land-based weapon of war was the armored vehicle. Often considered a prototype of the modern tank, the crank-powered vehicle was shielded by a conical covering inspired by a tortoise shell. Sixteen light cannons poked out around the vehicle’s perimeter, creating a mobile gun platform that could be driven headlong into the enemy. “No company of soldiers is so great that it will not break through them,” Leonardo wrote to his patron Ludovico Sforza, adding, “And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.” The design was more fanciful than practical, but the concept certainly foreshadowed the tanks of the future that shaped modern warfare. 

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