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Historians stipulate that it was Leonardo da Vinci’s fascination with flight that inspired him to innovate the anemometer, an instrument for measuring the speed of wind. His hope was that, eventually, the device could be used to give people insight into the direction of the wind before attempting flight. While da Vinci did not actually invent the device, he did make variations on the existing designed originated by Leon Batista in 1450 (da Vinci’s design was probably made between 1483 and 1486) so that it was easier to measure wind force. Next to his sketches of the anemometer, da Vinci made the following notes: "For measuring distance traversed per hour with the force of the wind. Here a clock for showing time is required." Da Vinci’s anemometer has an arched frame with a rectangular piece of wood hanging in the center by a hinge. When the wind blows, it raises the piece of wood inside the arched frame. Printed on the frame would be a scale. By noting the highest point that the wood reached on the scale, a person could measure the force of the wind.
Of Leonardo da Vinci’s many areas of study, perhaps this Renaissance man’s favorite was the area of aviation. Da Vinci seemed truly excited by the possibility of people soaring through the skies like birds. One of da Vinci’s most famous inventions, the flying machine (also known as the "ornithopter") ideally displays his powers of observation and imagination, as well as his enthusiasm for the potential of flight. The design for this invention is clearly inspired by the flight of winged animals, which da Vinci hoped to replicate. In fact, in his notes, he mentions bats, kites and birds as sources of inspiration. Perhaps the inspiration of the bat shines through the most, as the two wings of the device feature pointed ends commonly associated with the winged creature. Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine had a wingspan that exceeded 33 feet, and the frame was to be made of pine covered in raw silk to create a light but sturdy membrane. The pilot would lie face down in the center of the invention on a board. To power the wings, the pilot would pedal a crank connected to a rod-and-pulley system. The machine also had a hand crank for increased energy output, and a head piece for steering. As the busy pilot spins cranks with his hands and feet, the wings of the machine flap. The inspiration of nature in the invention is apparent in the way the wings were designed to twist as they flapped. Unfortunately, as da Vinci himself might have realized, while the flying machine may have flown once it was in the air, a person could never have created enough power to get the device off the ground.
Though the first actual helicopter wasn’t built until the 1940s, it is believed that Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches from the late fifteenth century were the predecessor to the modern day flying machine. As with many of da Vinci’s ideas, he never actually built and tested it – but his notes and drawings mapped out exactly how the device would operate. Da Vinci scrawled next to his sketches of the screw-like machine the following description: "If this instrument made with a screw be well made – that is to say, made of linen of which the pores are stopped up with starch and be turned swiftly, the said screw will make its spiral in the air and it will rise high." Also known as the "Helical Air Screw" or simply the "airscrew", the device was designed to compress air to obtain flight – similar to today’s helicopters. Da Vinci was a big proponent of the many possibilities offered by the screw shape, and he used the shape for other inventions and designs as well. Da Vinci’s helicopter measured more than 15 feet in diameter and was made from reed, linen and wire. It was to be powered by four men standing on a central platform turning cranks to rotate the shaft. With enough rotation, da Vinci believed the invention would lift off the ground. Unfortunately, due to weight constrictions, modern scientists do not believe da Vinci’s invention would have been able to take flight.
The way Leonardo da Vinci saw it, the problem with the canons of the time was that they took far too long to load. His solution to that problem was to build multi-barreled guns that could be loaded and fired simultaneously. This idea forms the basis of war inventions like da Vinci’s 33-barreled organ, which featured 33 small-caliber guns connected together. The canons were divided into three rows of 11 guns each, all connected to a single revolving platform. Attached to the sides of the platform were large wheels. All the guns on the organ would be loaded and then, during battle, the first row of 11 would be fired. The platform would then be rotated to properly aim the next row of canons. The idea was that while one set of canons was being fired, another set would be cooling and the third set could be loaded. This system allowed soldiers to repeatedly fire without interruption. The weapon is referred to as an "organ" because the rows of canon barrels resemble the pipes of an organ. Leonardo da Vinci’s design for the 33-barrelled organ is generally regarded as the basis for the modern day machine gun – a weapon that didn’t really develop for commercial use until the 19th century.
Though credit for the invention of the first practical parachute usually goes to Sebastien Lenormand in 1783, Leonardo da Vinci actually conceived the parachute idea a few hundred years earlier. Da Vinci made a sketch of the invention with this accompanying description: "If a man have a tent made of linen of which the apertures (openings) have all been stopped up, and it be twelve braccia (about 23 feet) across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury." Perhaps the most distinct aspect of da Vinci’s parachute design was that the canopy was triangular rather than rounded, leading many to question whether it would actually have enough air resistance to float. And since da Vinci’s parachute was to be made with linen covering a wood frame, the hefty weight of the device also was viewed as an issue. Like many of da Vinci’s ideas, the invention was never actually built or tested by Leonardo himself. But, in 2000, daredevil Adrian Nichols constructed a prototype based on da Vinci’s design and tested it. Despite skepticism from experts, da Vinci’s design worked as intended and Nichols even noted that it had a smoother ride than the modern parachute.
The precursor to the modern tank, Leonardo da Vinci’s armored car invention was capable of moving in any direction and was equipped with a large number of weapons. The most famous of da Vinci’s war machines, the armored car was designed to intimidate and scatter an opposing army. Da Vinci’s vehicle has a number of light cannons arranged on a circular platform with wheels that allow for 360-degree range. The platform is covered by a large protective cover (much like a turtle’s shell), reinforced with metal plates, which was to be slanted to better deflect enemy fire. There is a sighting turret on top to coordinate the firing of the canons and the steering of the vehicle. The motion of the machine was to be powered by eight men inside of the tank who would constantly turn cranks to spin the wheels. Leonardo suggested in his notes that the thought of using horses for power crossed his mind, but he dismissed it because he feared the animals would become too unpredictable in the confines of the tank. Despite its elaborate design, da Vinci’s tank has a major flaw - the powering cranks went in opposite directions. This made forward motion impossible. Scholars suggest such a basic engineering flaw would never have escaped the detail-oriented mind of Leonardo da Vinci, and that he may have inserted the flaw intentionally. A pacifist at heart, da Vinci might have sabotaged his own design to discourage the war machine from every being built.
One thing Leonardo da Vinci may have understood better than any of his contemporaries was the psychological effects of weapons in warfare. Da Vinci knew that the fear weapons could instill in enemies was just as important (if not more so) than the damage they could actually inflict. This was one of the main ideas behind many of da Vinci’s war inventions – among them, his giant crossbow. Designed for pure intimidation, da Vinci’s crossbow was to measure 42 braccia (or 27 yards) across. The device would have six wheels (three on each side) for mobility, and the bow itself would be made of thin wood for flexibility. Rather than fire giant arrows, Leonardo’s crossbow instead seems to be designed to fire large stones or possibly flaming bombs. For use, a soldier spins a crank to pull back the bow and loads the artillery. The soldier would then use a mallet to knock out a holding pin and fire the weapon. The giant crossbow invention is a great example of the way da Vinci’s artwork really brought his ideas to life. Through his illustrations, an idea, however improbable, becomes realistic and plausible. His vivid drawings of the giant crossbow invention also make it clear the idea behind the impressive weapon was to terrify enemies into fleeing rather than fighting.
As a military engineer, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s key beliefs was that mobility was crucial to victory on the battlefield. This idea is seen in many of his war inventions, from his mobile bridges and ladders to many of his weapon designs. A prime example is da Vinci’s triple barrel canon invention. During da Vinci’s time, canons were generally used at home in stationary positions rather than on the battlefield. This was because they were heavy and took a lot of time to reload. Da Vinci designed his triple barrel canon to solve both of these problems – a fast and light weapon that could do a lot of damage on the battlefield. The design featured three thin canons that would be front-loaded and adjustable in height. Unlike a traditional canon, where one shot would be fired before reloading, da Vinci’s canon allowed soldiers to load three shots at once, enabling them to fire more frequently. The lighter weight and large wheels allowed the gun carriage to be moved around to different areas during battle. It is also of note that, while gunpowder was in its infancy during the 15th century, Leonardo used it frequently in his designs, predicting its eventual emergence as the weapon of choice in 19th- and 20th-century warfare.
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