Like so many brilliant minds that came before and after him, Leonardo Da Vinci was not recognized as a genius during his lifetime. However, after visiting Carnegie Science Center’s newest exhibit, “Da Vinci The Exhibition,” which is open through August, it becomes apparent that Renaissance society was not to blame—Da Vinci’s ideas were simply so ahead-of-his-time that we are only now beginning to understand the true depth of his brilliance.
He never published the majority of his discoveries. Born in Italy in 1452, Da Vinci was the original Renaissance man, with an insatiable curiosity about the universe and a knack for discovery. He became a household name as an artist and painter, but by the time of his death in 1519, he had also made considerable contributions in the fields of art, science, engineering, anatomy, music, math and more. Yet some of his most forward-thinking ideas were lost after his death, as he had recorded his discoveries in hand-written books, called codices, which were passed on to his pupil, Franciso Melzi, and then sold or given away after Melzi’s death.
Some of his codices, in theory, could still be out there, undiscovered. In fact, two of them were found as recently as 1966 in Madrid, Spain. Today, a total of eight of Da Vinci’s codices are being preserved in museums or private collections all over the world, some of which he recorded in his own secret writing style—backwards, from left to right (a Da Vinci code, if you will)—perhaps to keep others from stealing his ideas.
The Carnegie Science Center exhibit brings these ideas to life in an enormous, two-story space filled with 60 life-size reproductions of his inventions, more than 20 art replicas and 30 interactive machines with signs reading “Please touch” (admittedly a pleasant surprise for frequent museum-goers). Guests are literally surrounded by his genius—you can try your hand at painting your own Mona Lisa in front of a life-sized 15-by-30-foot replica of The Last Supper, while models of his flying machines spin lazily from the ceiling overhead.
It’s easy to spend your time admiring the reproductions of his most famous paintings, but the real draw of the exhibit is in his many discoveries beyond the field of art. Take, for example, these seven surprising inventions and discoveries that were found in Da Vinci’s codices:
Da Vinci’s flying innovations are featured in the very first section of the exhibit. He spent a lot of time studying birds, bats and pretty much anything with wings in order to understand the mechanics of flight. His enormous designs sit on pedestals or are suspended in the air throughout the room, looking like a collection of dragon wings. One of his most notable designs was called an “Aerial Screw,” which he intended to function like a propeller. Resembling a large rotini noodle, the model consists of fabric and a wooden frame, and the design reportedly does create an elevation force. It is considered a predecessor of the helicopter, though it only ever existed as a drawing in a codice.
- Scuba Gear
At the entrance of a room dedicated to Da Vinci’s military innovations is a surprisingly modern-looking diving suit. The model included a bag-like mask connected to two tubes that reached to the surface to provide air to the diver. The leather suit was also designed to address issues such as water pressure. The ability to breathe and explore underwater has its obvious advantages, but according to a docent, Da Vinci was particularly interested in its naval potential—if you could sneak up under a boat, you could presumably attack its hull and sink it.
Da Vinci’s armored tank looks a bit more like a flying saucer than an attack vehicle, but the exhibit allows you to go inside the prototype to get a feel for how it would have functioned. This early predecessor to the modern tank could move in any direction, thanks to a system of geared wheels which could be controlled from the inside, and it was surrounded by cannon-like weapons pointing in every direction.
Created specifically to be used in stage productions, Da Vinci designed a “Self-Propelled Cart,” which could move with or without a driver in a straight or curved line. This model used a system of springs (the coil spring was another one of Da Vinci’s inventions) and it had both steering and braking capabilities. Scholars believe it was the first of its kind.
- The Keyboard
The piano was not invented until 1655, more than a hundred years after Da Vinci’s death, but harpsichords would have been the most comparable instrument during his time. He sought to make one portable, kind of like the modern-day portable keyboard, while combining the sounds of a harpsichord and a viola. The design incorporated his own pulley-system concept, which moved the strings across a disc, creating a bow-like viola sound.
- Steam power
Cannons originated in China and started appearing in Europe around the 13th century, but they almost exclusively used gunpowder. Da Vinci’s model was unique, in that his was powered by steam. His portable prototype utilized a stove of burning coals, which heated a small bit of water into high-pressured steam that would push an iron cannonball through the shaft of the cannon.
- The golden ratio
Over the course of his lifetime, Da Vinci exhumed and examined more than 30 human corpses (to the annoyance of the Church) in an effort to understand the inner-workings of the human body and natural human proportions. Without getting too mathematical, the golden ratio (“phi” or 1.618) is a special number often found in nature that is particularly pleasing to the eye and has been used by philosophers, artists and mathematicians alike as far back as 500 B.C. Da Vinci was found to have used the golden ratio in all of his paintings, and he was able to discover how it applies to the human body, as is evidenced in his famous Virtruvian Man. This concept was revolutionary to scholars of his time, and the proportions he discovered influenced leaders across many fields for centuries to come.