Robotic soldiers and a mechanical lion might seem like objects out of a futuristic movie, but they were both designed by Leonardo Da Vinci more than 500 years ago and are on display in Denver.
Da Vinci made money selling his design talents and painting portraits of the rich and famous. Having no particular loyalties, he worked for the highest bidder. More than 60 of his designs, hand-built by third generation Italian artisans, are on display as part of the “Da Vinci Machines” exhibition at the 16th Street Mall.
“He contracted out his design talents to dukes and lords,” museum curator Ali Rodgers said.
One such commission was called the “Scythed Chariot.” This war wagon, made to be pulled by horses, was designed for the Duke of Milan. It had an interlocking gear system that turned deadly looking scythes meant to mow down opponents.
Although he designed war machines for pay, Da Vinci led a peaceful private life.
“He’d buy caged birds and set them free,” manager of the exhibit Mark Rodgers, father of Ali Rodgers, said. Mark works in partnership with Niccolai Teknoart of The Artisans of Florence, the group that built the machines.
Because his commissioned designs and personal feelings about war were so conflicting, Da Vinci created wind-up robotic soldiers.
“He envisioned robots fighting each other so men didn’t have to lose their lives in battle,” Ali said.
Of his estimated 44,000 original drawings, only 14,000 survived. The exhibit contains more than 60 recreations of Da Vinci’s designs. Many of them are interactive with moving parts. Visitors to the exhibit learn that Da Vinci invented everything from the double-hulled boat to the life preserver. Each display includes a copy of Da Vinci’s original sketches and facts about the design.
“The design has withstood the test of time. It’s just the material and manufacturing process that has changed,” Mark said.
Some visitors to the exhibit were amazed by how many contraptions Da Vinci created.
“I can’t imagine that he ever slept,” Susan Downey Louisville resident said.
A replica of a wooden bicycle is one of the many hands-on displays. No one knew that Da Vinci had invented a bicycle until 1966 when a monk was going through the inventor’s design books. He noticed some of the pages were stuck together and discovered the bicycle design.
“More important than inventing the bicycle, he invented the chain that powered the bicycle,” Ali said.
Da Vinci’s bike has no steering or brakes, and a sloped wooden seat. Metal casting was not advanced enough at the time to make a metal chain, so he probably made his from leather.
“He invented things he couldn’t even make,” Mark said.
Da Vinci had a passion for flight and tried to mimic animals that could fly with his inventions.
His “Bat Wing Glider” hangs from the ceiling of the museum. Similar to a hang-glider, Da Vinci’s glider is made of wood and canvas. He was probably the first to theorize that a flying machine’s wings must be parallel to the horizon for it to stay in the air, according to Rodgers.
“Leonardo thought of human flight before the Wright brothers,” Denia Lindsey Fort Collins resident said. “That was so long ago.”
Da Vinci’s designs were so prolific that many are used every day by millions. General Motors has 3,000 patents on the internal combustion engine. Every part in the engine comes from one of Da Vinci’s ideas except for the spark plugs, according to Mark.
“We’ve been embraced by the whole community and we just love that,” Mark said. Mark encourages young guests to be creative and to find the Da Vinci inside themselves.
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