Leonardo da Vinci (1452 — 1519) was a masterful artist and inventor, and it’s difficult to say which of his endeavors had the greatest impact on modern-day art and science. Certainly, his research has shaped current understandings of linear perspective, light and shadow, and human anatomy. He was also famed for his mapmaking, mathematics skills, and geology knowledge. And yet, some of his most important contributions were not to cartography, architecture, or even painting. Rather, much of da Vinci’s greatest work and influence lies in the world of robotics.
da Vinci’s creations span the gamut of robotics, including humanlike and animal-like designs. Although many of da Vinci’s designs are incomplete, they were ahead of their time, and they have since served as inspiration for modern robots in the medical and astronomy fields. Thus, his contributions to robotics cannot be overlooked, dating all the way back to his self-propelled cart and ending with his mechanical lions.
The Self-Propelled Cart
Designed in 1478, Leonardo’s self-propelled cart is widely considered to be the world’s first robotic vehicle. It operated via wound up springs that functioned similarly to a clock and its steering could be programmed via pegs inserted into round holes; these pegs helped guide the cart by making the wheels move at specific times. Constructed out of five different types of wood, the cart was five and a half feet long and nearly five feet wide, and could theoretically move over 40 yards before needing to be rewound.
The drawings of da Vinci’s cart were first uncovered in the early 1900s by historian Girolamo Calvi (1874 — 1934), who nicknamed the cart “Leonardo’s Fiat.” For decades, attempts to recreate his design failed, and researchers couldn’t understand why. Finally, in 1997, it was discovered that the fault lay not in da Vinci’s design but in researchers’ understanding of it; the design’s cart springs were intended to regulate the cart’s drive mechanism, but researchers had been using them in an attempt to drive the car itself.
In 2004, a working replica of da Vinci’s cart was created in Florence. Due to the cart’s potential power and risks, the replica was only 1/3 the size of the original design. A second working replica was later created in the 2009 show Doing DaVinci. Interestingly, researchers were quick to note that these replicas bore a vague but unmistakable resemblance to the Mars Land Rover.
The Mechanical Knight
Records of Leonardo’s knight were first discovered in 1957 by historian Carlo Pedretti (1928 — 2018). The knight, also known as Leonardo’s mechanical knight, was designed around 1495 and sported German-Italian armor. Based on findings from the Codex Atlanticus — which contains the largest compilation of da Vinci’s notes and drawings — it’s possible that da Vinci built a working model of his design later that year. And while records can’t state for certain, it’s believed that the machine was featured in a celebration for one of his patrons, Duke Ludovico Sforza (1452 —1508), at Sforza’s court in Milan.
Leonardo’s mechanical knight consisted of several gears and pulleys, and according to its design, it should have been capable of moving its arms and legs. Additionally, the knight would have been able to sit and stand. In 2002, a modern replica was built by robotics expert Mark Rosheim, and it confirmed these capabilities and more—the robot also had a fully functional jaw and could move its neck and lift its visor. In 2007, researcher Mario Taddei crafted a second replica, and it was shown to be just as functional as the first replica.
Largely considered the first humanoid robot ever created, da Vinci’s design would later be utilized by NASA to aid in the construction of planetary exploration robots. Revolutionary for the time, his knight continues to inspire robotics today.
The Three Mechanical Lions
It wasn’t enough for da Vinci to create the first robotic vehicle and first humanoid robot; he was also responsible for the world’s first robotic lion. As well as the second and third. The first of these lions was created in 1509, allegedly as a welcome gift for King Louis XII (1462 — 1515). This lion stood on its hind legs and gifted the king a lily, which was meant to represent and honor France.
In 1515, Pope Leo X (1475 — 1521) commissioned da Vinci to create a second mechanical lion, which he planned to gift to Francis I (1494 — 1547), the new King of France. A lion was the perfect way to gain the king’s favor, as it symbolized both the pope’s name and the king’s emblem.
Little is known about da Vinci’s third lion; in fact, it’s better known for its comparative lack of information. However, the lion seems to have been similar in design to the second, and descriptions of its design were fundamental in modern-day recreation attempts.
Unlike da Vinci’s cart and knight, concrete evidence of his lions’ creation has been documented extensively. Painters such as Michelangelo (1475 — 1564) wrote about the second lion’s stunning design and capabilities; it could move on its own, and when presented to the king, its chest opened to reveal lilies. However, drawings and details of the design itself were limited to a few entries in the Madrid Codices.
Attempts to recreate one of da Vinci’s lions finally succeeded in 2009. Artist Renato Boaretto pieced together several of da Vinci’s blueprints, then extrapolated the missing design components from da Vinci’s other designs. One design that featured heavily in the lion’s machinery was Leonardo’s knight; the lion would operate through a system of gears and pulleys similar to the knight’s own system.
The lion’s final design was fully operational, lion-like, and true to da Vinci’s original. Powered by a single key, the lion could move ten steps before needing to be re-cranked. It was displayed at the Château du Clos Lucé and Parc—the same Château where da Vinci died in 1519.
In 2019, a second recreation was completed and displayed at the Italian Culture Institute in Paris. This version was nearly 10 feet long and 7 feet tall, and it relied on a similar clockwork interior. However, the exterior was drastically different from the first recreation, showcasing a new interpretation of da Vinci’s original design.
It’s impossible to account for all of da Vinci’s robotic designs, in part because many of them have been lost to history. Additionally, as previously stated, not all of his surviving designs are complete. In some cases, key components regarding machinery or function are missing — and as was the case with his cart, some of da Vinci’s designs are simply hard to understand. However, more is being learned about the artist and his robots every day. And, as understanding of da Vinci’s designs increases, so, too, does the artist’s influence.
In addition to his cart, knight, and lions, da Vinci also created a hydraulically powered machine that could be programmed to ring a bell. A different robot was designed to beat a drum, whereas a third resembled a modern-day drone. Today, these and other designs have been utilized to create even more robots, including the medical machine that bears his name: the da Vinci Surgical System.
da Vinci’s influence on modern-day robotics is invaluable. His knowledge of human anatomy, coupled with his interest in mathematics and engineering, made him perfectly suited for the field. Additionally, his creativity and curiosity only aided in his designs, which continue to challenge, compel, and inspire other robotics experts today.
Note* Images are sourced from the public domain.