Art

15 Things You Didn’t Know Leonardo da Vinci Influenced

Leonardo da Vinci wore many hats—painter, mathematician, inventor, and paleontologist were just some of the titles that might describe him. Here are 15 areas of modern life that you might not know were influenced by the work of the 15th-century Italian genius.

1. Paleontology

Leonardo may have been the first person to record the discovery of a rare fossil called Paleodictyon, which appears as a hexagonal shape in sediment. Even today, scientists are still trying to figure out what exactly makes these fossil shapes, thought to be indicative of an animal burrowing into the sea floor. In understanding that fossils were the remains of ancient life, Leonardo expressed some of the first modern ideas about paleontology. He is considered the founding father of ichnology, the study of behavioral traces of plants and animals.

2. Robotics

In the late 15th century, Leonardo designed what is considered the first humanoid robot. Made to look like a knight, the automaton had a complicated series of pulleys and spring mechanics that allowed it to raise its hands and move its joints when activated. He also designed several mechanical lions that could walk on their own using clock-like machinery that was far ahead of its time. A Venetian designer made a full-sized recreation of one of these lions in 2009, creating a 6-foot-long wind-up toy that could walk, move its head, and wag its tail.

3. Flight Safety

Leonardo jotted down an idea for the first parachute in the margins of one of his notebooks as early as the 1480s. He wrote: “If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury.” In 2000, a British man jumped out of a hot air balloon using a parachute made to Leonardo’s specifications, successfully floating back down (although it weighed almost 190 pounds, so he cut free from the contraption before reaching the ground to avoid being crushed by it).

4. Helicopters

A sketch of an early helicopter prototype drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in 1483.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

Long before flying machines were feasible, Leonardo came up with the basic idea for the helicopter. His “aerial screw” had a prop that turned to lift it off the ground. In 2013, a team of Canadian engineers created a human-powered helicopter based on Leonardo’s idea, flying the winged bicycle in an international competition.

5. Telescopes

Though Leonardo probably didn’t actually make a telescope, he definitely realized the potential of lenses and mirrors to reveal the details of celestial bodies from the ground. One of his notebooks contains instructions for what sounds a lot like a mirror telescope: “In order to observe the nature of the planets,” he wrote, “open the roof and bring the image of a single planet onto the base of a concave mirror. The image of the planet reflected by the base will show the surface of the planet much magnified.”

6. Contact Lenses

In 1509, Leonardo sketched out a model for how you might change the eye’s optical power. By sticking the face into a bowl of water, one could see more clearly. Water-filled lenses worn over the eye might improve vision, he speculated. The idea wasn’t practical enough for a prototype, but it would later influence the 19th-century scientists who finally produced the first rudimentary contact lenses.

7. Scuba Diving

Jacques Cousteau may be the father of scuba diving, but Leonardo was already thinking about diving suits in the early 16th century. He proposed a floating cork buoy that would keep cane tubes above water, funneling air to a diver below. He also dreamed up a leather bag to hold air, and a bag for the diver to pee in.

8. Freudian Psychology

In 1916, Sigmund Freud published an entire book attempting to analyze a historical figure based on his biography, using Leonardo da Vinci as his subject. Based on a very brief description in Leonardo’s notes of a childhood memory, Freud psychoanalyzed Leonardo, coming up with extensive explanations for his relentless curiosity, artistic skill, and overall behavior.

9. Artistic Perspective

Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Saint John the Baptist,' from 1513-16.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Saint John the Baptist,’ from 1513-16.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Renaissance painter was obsessed with optics and perspective. He brought the artistic technique of atmospheric perspective—where things farther away look blurrier—to Italy, and popularized it in Renaissance paintings, using it in his famous works like the Mona Lisa. He developed artistic techniques like chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and shadow, and sfumato, the blending of oil paints to blur the lines between colors in a painting.

10. Anatomy

In addition to his discoveries regarding human organs, Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to accurately describe the shape of the spine. He portrayed the backbone’s S-shaped curve, and for the first time depicted the sacrum as being made up of fused vertebrae.

11. Dentistry

Leonardo was the first person to depict the correct structure of the teeth within the mouth, illuminating their number and root structure for future study.

12. Heart Surgery

A Leonardo da Vinci drawing, dated 1509-10, of a woman's cardiovascular system.

A Leonardo da Vinci drawing, dated 1509-10, of a woman’s cardiovascular system.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Leonardo was obsessed with the heart, and dissected actual hearts to figure out how they worked. A century before the discovery of the heart’s role in pumping blood around the body, Leonardo figured out that it was vital to the circulation system, and diagrammed it and its surrounding blood vessels. He was the first person to describe coronary artery disease, and the first to describe the heart as a muscle.

13. Obstetrics

Anatomical drawing of a fetus in the womb by Leonardo da Vinci.

iStock.com/JanakaMaharageDharmasena

Many of Leonardo’s drawings of female anatomy mistakenly assume similarities between the reproductive organs of humans and cows. But he was the first to depict the position of the fetus within a woman’s uterus, laying the groundwork for better understanding of pregnancy and childbirth.

14. Optical Illusions

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks contain the earliest known examples of anamorphosis, a visual trick where an image looks distorted from the usual vantage point, but appears normal in another, such as in a mirror. This is the illusion that makes a flat image look three-dimensional, as often seen in sidewalk art.

15. Pop Culture

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is one of the most recognizable drawings in the world. It’s been used to illustrate the opening credits of television shows, parodied on t-shirts, and featured prominently in movies to represent mankind.

This story was updated in 2019.

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