Dr. Leo Oriet
October 5, 2018
The inception of engineering begins with imagination. The machinations of one’s mind are taken out of the imaginary and brought to the physical world through designs and drawings. Handmade pictures, sculptures, models, and modern computer-assisted design (CAD) software are all tools of the engineer that can aid in depicting ideas. Translating one’s thoughts into convincing, sensible, and clear representations of the physical world takes talent. This skill is often the trait that distinguishes a good engineer from a great one. The renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci is the exemplar of an engineer artist. His drawings and artistic ability gave him an unmatched ability to design and depict his inventions with grace and clarity. His mere hand drawings of weapons and mechanisms were works of art. Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings, all made with the technology of the sixteenth century realistically depicted three-dimensional interpretations of his complex inventions. The work of Leonardo is the pinnacle of engineering, and artistic ability, which maintains his reverence five hundred years after his death. The modern world has changed significantly since Da Vinci’s time, as tools, materials, and engineering methods have progressed drastically, but the fundamentals which made him the most famous engineer of all time including his ingenuity, creativity, artistry, and design capabilities still hold true.
To conceptualize the true greatness and renown of Leonardo Da Vinci with regards to his engineering skills we must attempt to identify the reasons in which he became so famous and noteworthy. The mechanical machinations of Leonardo which still impress, and baffle modern engineers are at the heart of his fame. The futuristic and eerily modern concepts within his designs are impressive and display the man’s incredible creativity. Leonardo’s designs include conceptions of modern devices such as an early idea for a machine gun, a tank, airplanes, robots, and a remote car. Using the technology and materials of his time Da Vinci designed renaissance incarnations of modern ideas. His rotating, multi-barrelled gun, designed for the renaissance battlefields of Italy show ingenuity and innovative ability as he recognized the problems of his time and invented a solution nearly four hundred years prior to when the first real machine guns were invented. Leonardo’s machine gun was not the only modern concept he envisioned, as he would design ingenious mechanical devices such as mechanically driven knights, which were conceptually similar to modern robotics. Additionally, his designs for aircraft were particularly imaginative as he experimented with the physics of water to gain an understanding of aerodynamics. This experimentation eventually resulted in the ” Ornithopter: an eccentric flapping machine inspired by birds and bats…made from pinewood and pure silk” (Gorvett). His connection between the behaviour of the fluids of air and water demonstrated his great ingenuity and intellect. As a further testament to his genius all of his designs for these complex machines and concepts were made by hand, with pen and paper.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s sole usage of pen and paper when designing his inventions demonstrates not only the utility in hand drawing skills but in the legitimacy in continuing to foster the skill of drawing by hand. Most important in relation to hand drawing skills is the spatial visualization training gained from experience in making drawings by hand. This skill is fundamental in engineering and inventing as it allows for the imagining of problems and designs within one’s imagination. If one can visualize the object or design in their mind, they can understand it. This skill allows for the fundamental understanding of design as all other design tools are based on the ideas and knowledge base of hand drawing techniques. Furthermore, without a foundation in handmade drawings one’s ability to utilize CAD software will also be lacking and hinder their overall skill in the design process. The engineer or inventor’s brain is taught to conceptualize three-dimensional objects in a different manner by drawing these objects by hand on paper. The skill of hand drawing is very important in the development of design as it is an important tool when conceptualizing or formulating an idea (Ullman). The old example of back-of-the-envelope or napkin sketches are brought to mind as an inventor or engineer scrambles to draw their idea on some scrap before they lose the idea, or to better understand their own thinking. Often this is a fast and practical way to improve one’s own understanding of some design as it allows the drawer to not only imagine the design but to physically observe it. Furthermore, handmade sketches and general drawing skills are important in the communication of ideas, particularly to colleagues who may not understand your design or drawing. The ability to draw designs by hand is critical to both engineering work, and the engineering mindset.
In relation to drawing skills, an engineer’s artistic ability can be instrumental in propelling their designs and ideas to a higher quality. Leonardo Da Vinci’s artistic ability is foundational in his success as an engineer and is clearly evident throughout all of his work. His direct artistry in the form of famous artistic masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, Vitruvian Man, and the Last Supper clearly display his creative genius. However, Da Vinci’s art was not limited to paintings, and solely artistic drawings; a core reason why he is still remembered by society is his artistic representations of mechanical devices. Da Vinci was an incredible artist to the extent where the designs of his machines, and inventions were drawn in a realistic manner which made some of his outlandish ideas he depicted seem possible. Da Vinci’s great skill in depicting his inventions led his career to great success. His designs such as the “wooden tank” allowed him to advertise his services and talent, eventually gaining patronage from nobles in the Italian city of Milan.
In addition to helping his career, the artistic influence in Da Vinci’s blueprints was a novel innovation in engineering. Leonardo was in opposition to the contemporaries of his time as he saw art and science as coordinating forces which supported each other, not as opposites (Birkett). The integration of art into a science, specifically engineering is an ideal which inspires modern engineers. Integrating art into engineering is a difficult, albeit critical skill in engineering. Due to the difficulty of integrating art in engineering Da Vinci’s drawings and artistic design are an inspiration for the profession. Furthermore, Da Vinci’s drawing style itself was an innovation in the field of engineering as his style “enabled him to record his mechanical ideas with enough clarity that blueprints for working models could be created” (Sniderman). The elegance and clarity in which Leonardo Da Vinci drew his innovations generated ideals of engineering hand drawings. Da Vinci’s usage of realistic three-dimensional views and multiple viewing angles gave all the information needed for clearly understanding his designs. The strategies employed by Da Vinci such as drawing multiple different views are still employed in modern engineering as orthographic projections and isometric views. These drawing methods are foundational tools in engineering drawing. Through hand drawings alone, using only chalk, pen, and paper Leonardo Da Vinci brought innovation to the engineering field, creating ideals for engineers in design and drawing.
Modern engineers have much greater access to design tools than ever before and are no longer limited to the pen an paper, as their forefathers were. A category of engineering technology and tools called computer-aided design (CAD) has greatly helped the field in generating ever more complex designs. This technology is extremally useful as it grants the user many benefits including virtual three-dimensional views of their drawings, the ability to draw in scale through virtual environments, and the storage of thousands of complex and large designs on a single machine. In the past, if an engineer wanted a three-dimensional view of their design they would have to draw it, but now even highly complex designs are projected virtually into three dimensions by software. However, with all the significant advantages of CAD software, it can never fully replace the need for hand drawing. Making designs by hand will never fully be replaced as it is important in the creation of novel ideas. While CAD may be much more accurate than hand drawings, inventors often go to hand drawing first, as it can offer several advantages. By making their drawings by hand an inventor can help themselves conceptualize their idea better. Moreover, hand drawing is generally much faster and less restrictive than CAD drawing. An inventor can sketch multiple ideas and start solidifying their innovation before a single idea could be drawn using CAD software (Thilmany). Additionally, the constraints of CAD environments make drawing a novel idea difficult if the inventor does not have the tools to draw their idea. However, with hand drawing, there are no environmental constraints other than what you can imagine. CAD software will never fully replace the need for making drawings by hand, as it does not fulfill the all the uses that hand drawing.
In conclusion, the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci to engineering are immense. Da Vinci, through his genius designs and masterful artistry, gave the world many inventions and insights into engineering. His curiosity, quest for knowledge, and his will to improve the world models the optimal behaviour of an engineer. This renaissance man gave the world so much in both masterworks of artistic expression and mechanical design that he is still the worlds most famous engineer, nearly five hundred years after his death. One of the most important aspects of Da Vinci’s greatness is his inventions. Centuries before their modern analogs, Da Vinci had invented airplanes, helicopters, robots, tanks, and machine guns. Using only pen and paper Da Vinci was able to clearly represent, and solidify his fantastical inventions, demonstrating the utility of handmade drawings, and their usefulness in depicting ideas, and designs. The clear artistic talent demonstrated by Da Vinci in his artwork as well as engineering helped him greatly in both finding success in life and in death be remembered as the most famous engineer of all time. Leonardo Da Vinci notably brought innovation to the world through his ideas, but he also inspired change in the engineering field as a whole. Through his many sketches and designs, Da Vinci applied art into engineering or arguably brought engineering into art. This gave engineers an ideal to strive towards when representing their own designs, and his style of hand drawings for his designs can be seen in part in modern drawing techniques. Hand drawing techniques and their utility for inventors still remains highly relevant even when compared to modern drawing techniques such as CAD software. The benefits associated with hand drawing maintain their usefulness in design. Through the lasting legacy of Leonardo Da Vinci in art, engineering and science, he truly is a polymath, and worthy of the title of the worlds most famous engineer.
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Gorvett, Zaria. “Future – Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lessons in Design Genius.” BBC News, BBC, 28 July 2016, www.bbc.com/future/story/20160727-leon.
Sniderman, Debbie. “Leonardo Da Vinci.” ASME.org, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Apr. 2012, www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/history-of-mechanical-engineering/leonardo-da-vinci.
Thilmany, Jean. “Pros and Cons of CAD.” ASME.org, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Sept. 2006, www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/computer-aided-design-(cad)/pros-and-cons-of-cad.
Ullman, David G. “The Importance of Drawing in the Mechanical Design Process.” The Importance of Drawing, Pergamon Press Plc., July 2001, web.engr.oregonstate.edu/~ullmand/drwg.htm.