To many people of his time, he was more well-known for his contraptions being used in plays and unfinished paintings; but to people of the future he was a visionary misunderstood in his own time. Walter Isaacson dedicated entire chapters in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci to the observations that he made, but also how they became relevant centuries after his death.
It is important to note that the Scientific Method did not exist in da Vinci’s time, rather he wrote his scientific and aesthetic ponderings through mere observations and comparisons–essentially what we today call hypotheses. Accompanying those observations, he performed many experiments to see whether these hypotheses had any bearing, which was unique to many thinkers in the past.
When explaining how exactly valleys are created, da Vinci explained that it had to do with the rivulets diluting the sedimentation of the soil and thus created an exposed a layer of strata. This then led to speculating how-as he did in his notes–how marine life could end up from the sea to being fossilized in a mountain. This discovery would eventually become useful to study of these strata two hundred years later, as they could provide a better explanation to da Vinci’s observations.
He detailed all of this in a document dubbed Codex Leicester, in which he made the subversive claim that based on these observations, the Biblical Deluge could not have carried those life forms at such high distances above.
Unlike water, Da Vinci discovered through twenty years of observation that air is not as compressed as water. When explaining why birds take flight, he explained that the birds’ wings will put more pressure on the air underneath the wings than above. This was in direct defiance towards Aristotle’s theory that birds coast along air the same way ships coast along water.
Da Vinci’s observation bore fruit, since it would be observed by Galileo’s principle of relativity, which dictated that that an object only moves when the air thrusts it. This would also be observed by the Bernoulli Principle, which argued that air and fluid flows faster and has less force.
Of course, like air and water motions, da Vinci realized that motion is not permanent.
When drawing the designs of machines he was known for, da Vinci encountered a problem with the idea of using water that carries upwards within a coiled tube in order to exert motion. He eventually realized that friction prevents motion from being in a continuous state.
After experimenting with heavy objects, he discovered that there were three factors that ulimately determine the object’s motion:
- the weight of the object
- the smoothness/roughness
- the steepness of the incline
Although, da Vinci figured out that motion is not always based on the object and the area of contact, he never published these findings. This discovery was only noticed two hundred years later by a French scientific instrument maker, Guillaume Amontons.
Furthermore, Da Vinci discovered that when balls make contact with each other, he discovered that the materials that they were made of determine whether their movements become contrary or not. So, he took the copper and tin that he used to make mirrors and made balls which anti-friction balls. This is was yet another discovery that was not made in its own time. The anti-friction alloy was credited to the American inventor Isaac Babbitt centuries later.
These observations required a deep-level of thinking that meant subverting what had been previously established thought. Of course, these observation made da Vinci a brilliant man centuries after his death; while he would have been considered a heretic in his own time.
Although da Vinci’s law of friction was proven incorrect through miscalculation, had those findings been more relevant in his own time, they would have been given thought by the royalty and the intelligentsia of the Renaissance.
As for the wider world, it is a sign that unique minds like da Vinci should be appreciated more since they notice more than what any other person is able to.
- Dowson, Duncan (1977-10-01). “Men of Tribology: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)”. Journal of Lubrication Technology. 99 (4): 382–386.
- Isaacson, Walter. “Leonardo da Vinci.” Simon & Schuster. 2017.
- Letizia, Anthony. “Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance Man.” Geek Frontiers. 2019.