How Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks Transcend Time

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks contain a plethora of innovations, from the wondrous and fantastical to the incomprehensible.

Feb 16, 2023By Dennis Lynch, BSc Civil Engineering

how leonardo davinci scientific innovations


Leonardo da Vinci is known as a genius, and rightly so. Da Vinci not only crafted beautiful masterpieces of art, but he also spent his time on architecture projects, theorizing how to make man fly, sculpting, planning engineering works, creating urban plans, and even drawing anatomical structures with the accuracy of a modern-day textbook. Most, if not all, of these innovations can be found directly in the many Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. This allows a level of examination into the premiere Renaissance Man’s mind about what he was thinking about, how often, and his level of intuition. Some of the inventions he hid in his notebooks are so advanced they came into existence after the invention of flight.


Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks and Inventions

A design for an Aerial Screw or Helicopter


The plethora of inventions designed and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci can be found directly in his notebooks. For easy access, some of his notebooks have been digitized and are available online, such as the Codex Forster and the Codex Atlanticus. Some others, such as the above “Aerial Screw,” the name that consensus has assigned to the invention, can be found in notebooks that have not yet been entirely digitized. The “Aerial Screw,” for example, comes from the Paris Manuscripts of da Vinci’s notebooks, but sporadic images of varying quality can only be found instead of official digitized copies online provided by the Institut de France.


“Armored Car” drawing, or rather, more appropriately, a Tank.


While the manuscripts appear to be mostly random in what notes get gathered in together for one, some have a collection of interesting items on one topic. For example, the Paris Manuscripts previously mentioned have different sections, from A to M, and Paris Manuscript B is quick to pique interest. It contains notes and designs for “flight…the helicopter, a submarine, architectural studies…and engines of war.” Again, however, images of the submarine are hard to come by due to the fact that the notebook has not been officially digitized. Yet, there are plenty of exciting inventions in these accessible notebooks.


Crude Inventions of Flight

A design of an apparent slingshot meant for flight, via Web Gallery of Art

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Da Vinci is well known for his interest in human flight, and it can be found all over his notebooks, sometimes in unsuspecting ways. As seen in the image above, da Vinci designed what appears to be a slingshot meant to enable human flight. While crude, surely it could allow someone to fly, albeit briefly. This invention is creative, but it does not contain the elegance that many of da Vinci’s drawings and inventions do. In fact, this device appears to have fallen directly out of a cartoon. If one had spent the time, money, and energy actually creating the object as it more or less appears, there is little reason to believe it could not send people flying over the horizon like catapults and trebuchets had done for hundreds of years, then. However, da Vinci actually did devise a way for an average human to survive such a launch.


Parachute design, via Cove Collective


Da Vinci invented the parachute. He may not have made the parachute, but he had a plan to create one. In fact, there are articles of people in modern times creating da Vinci’s parachute, and it works. So, da Vinci had the reasonable foresight not just to launch people into the air to create flight in any way possible but to allow them to land safely instead of providing an exhilarating one-way trip. Translations of his notes near the parachute follow,


“If a man has a tent made of linen of which the apertures 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.”


So, an invention often considered modern, being so modern as not to have been in full effective use during World War I, was originally developed by da Vinci hundreds of years prior. Perhaps that is for better than worse, however. As noted by the man who successfully used da Vinci’s design to safely parachute down from a hot air balloon, it weighed 187 pounds. Therefore, the practicality of carrying around the parachute as designed needed to wait a few hundred years before time and materials could catch up to da Vinci’s genius.


Advanced Inventions of Flight

A design of a flying device with wings, via the Codex Atlanticus


Da Vinci’s fascination with flight does not end at simply launching and parachuting. He has plenty of notebook pages of wings, seemingly believing that men must have some way to fly. Upon inspection of the drawings, it can clearly be seen the inspiration from natural wings that it had on the creation of such designs. Some of the wings appear very similar to bat wings, which Leonardo may have studied. Most likely, the designs were inspired by bird wings. Da Vinci even has pages dedicated directly to flights of birds containing notes and drawings of the avian creatures.


Perhaps one of his most experimental designs into flight was the “Aerial Screw” mentioned previously. The device itself is also reminiscent of a helicopter, which is why the invention is also called so. The design works rather intuitively to push air down. There appears to be a winch with a bar or two on the mast of the design, which da Vinci most likely would have imagined someone walking, or running, around. By turning the winch, the screw rotates, likely somewhere near the top, pushing air slightly away but mostly down. In order to work, the aerial screw crew would have to move fast enough to create enough force equal to and greater than the mass of the whole object. The design was sound and actually works. It just was not feasible to work with the materials available to da Vinci when he invented it.


Anatomical Discoveries

A drawing depicting skeletal and muscle relationships between a man’s legs and a horse’s legs, via Web Gallery of Art


Leonardo was so passionate about anatomy that some today might even think him a madman. As an artist, he had plenty of reason to have study sheets of various anatomical features. Leonardo’s notebooks show cats, lions, birds, horses, men, and women. In order to recreate them in a drawing, one must have some kind of association and intimacy with the anatomy they want to recreate. However, Leonardo’s dedication goes deeper than that.


Even today, it might seem a bit suspicious if someone had dozens of handwritten notes and diagrams about the muscles and skeletal structure of animals and human bodies. But da Vinci was a man of science and science breeds curiosity. And curiosity breeds innovation.


A great example of Leonardo’s interest in all kinds of anatomy can be seen in the above drawings of men’s legs and horse legs. The muscles are defined very well as if someone had cut off the skin to examine them. Experts agree that this is exactly what Leonardo did in order to truly see what was going on beneath the surface of the skin. Besides these drawings being on a level that they could be used to teach medical students today, there is another interesting thread to tie with this one drawing. Da Vinci seems to have put on paper that he recognized some correlation between the legs of men and the legs of horses, structurally speaking. A correlation that would not fully be developed and digested until Charles Darwin in the 1860s with his theory of evolution. However, it is a correlation that da Vinci was clearly onto.


A diagram of an embryo, via Cove Collective


While da Vinci drew many anatomical drawings of muscles and skeletons that, if accepted by the religious continent of Europe, could have made modern medicine today the standard in the 1500s, nothing might have been so dastardly to draw as the diagram above.


Amid all the hardly decipherable notes is a prominently displayed diagram of an embryo. It depicts the fetus inside a dissected and cut-open womb. The drawing was the first in recorded history to depict the uterine artery and veins of the female reproductive organs. In defiance of the thoughts of his time, he drew the embryo in a one-chambered uterus. Many thought there were multiple chambers, which would provide a reason for twins.


Upon completing this drawing and the related dissection, Leonardo drew the umbilical cord and related vessels. He noted how the umbilical cord was the likely candidate for removing the embryo’s waste from the womb. He came to this conclusion because the feet of the fetus blocked its own urethra and therefore did not naturally allow for waste excretion to occur.


Leonardo did not publish these anatomical findings during his life. It also did not occur immediately after his life, as the heir of his notebooks did not publish or spread them to anyone. As Leonardo’s trusted disciple of the notebooks, a man named Francesco Melzi appeared to have kept the notebooks together for the duration of his life. Only upon Francesco’s death did his son, Orazio, begin to scatter the work of the Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci. During this process, some of Leonardo’s work was lost to time, and there may have been dozens upon dozens of more interesting and enlightening innovations that have disappeared from history.

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By Dennis LynchBSc Civil EngineeringDennis is a civil engineer turned writer with a passion for history. From the Romans to the Aztecs, to the Mamluks to the Qing, He finds all facets of history fascinating. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University in New Jersey.