Maker Birthdays: Leonardo da Vinci

Craft & Design
Maker Birthdays: Leonardo da Vinci

Today’s been a hectic day, so I’m behind in getting up this Maker Birthday tribute to probably the maker of all makers. To me, Leonardo is the ultimate example of what you might call the Bucky Fuller Challenge. In 1927, Buckminster Fuller at 32, was suicidal. Instead of leaping from the Chicago bridge on which he stood, ready to take his life, he decided to give the rest of that life to the world, to challenge himself to see what a single “human intelligence unit” could accomplish in a lifetime.

In my William Blake piece in the latest MAKE, I relate Blake’s view that the human imagination is infinite, divine, and that we tragically hobble our access to that imagination and all that we’re capable of. When you look at giants like Da Vinci, William Blake, and Buckminster Fuller, it does give you pause to consider what we all might be able to accomplish if we could find full-on access to that current of imagination and innovation they seemed to have tapped into.

If you want to get a glimpse of what “Human Intelligence Unit Leonardo” was able to accomplish in his lifetime, check out the official Leonardo website (where all the pictures below came from). It is absolutely mind-boggling, page after page after page of jaw-dropping ideas, inventions, and staggeringly beautiful works of art. There’s so much material here, and good use of virtual walkthroughs, 3D models, hi-res photos, you could spend days on it. A fittingly-dense and attractive tribute to this extraordinary man.

Here’s the beginnings of the Wikipedia entry on Leonardo:

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) was an Italian polymath, being a scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the renaissance man, a man whose unquenchable curiosity was equaled only by his powers of invention. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. Helen Gardner says “The scope and depth of his interests were without precedent…His mind and personality seem to us superhuman, the man himself mysterious and remote”.

Born as the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, at Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter, Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice and spent his last years in France, at the home awarded him by Francis I.

Leonardo was and is renowned primarily as a painter. Two of his works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are the most famous, most reproduced and most parodied portrait and religious painting of all time, respectively, their fame approached only by Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on everything from the Euro to text books to t-shirts. Perhaps fifteen of his paintings survive, the small number due to his constant, and frequently disastrous, experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, comprise a contribution to later generations of artists only rivalled by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo.

Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualised a helicopter, a tank, concentrated solar power, a calculator, the double hull and outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded. As a scientist, he greatly advanced the state of knowledge in the fields of anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics.


And, our very own John Park points us to a site he did a few years back on Da Vinci’s Kinematic Mechanisms:

I’ve been interested in creating reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines and automata using 3D software for some time. I’ll document the process here as a sort of loose tutorial in rigging mechanical devices.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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