Saturday, February 13, 2016

Why Leonardo da Vinci was a genius

If we step back from the individual inventions, we can see that his [Leonardo da Vinci] genius as an engineer rests on three foundations.

The first is that he saw clearly how the design of machines must be informed by the mathematical laws of physics rather than just relying upon practice. For instance, he realised that if the power of an unwinding spring diminished according to a mathematical ratio, any device to compensate for this must be designed in accordance with the mathematics. As such, he invented a series of conical and spiral gears that could be mounted on the axle of a barrel-spring to counteract the unwinding.

He was also the first to design separate components that could be deployed in a variety of devices. His “elements of machines” ranged from complex units such as the gears for barrel springs and ring bearings for axles to relatively simple hinges.

And no-one ever drew machines with more attention to reality. The mental “sculpture” that he conducted in his mind was transmitted on to the paper with total conviction. He knew that such “portraits” of devices did not necessarily clarify all the details of construction, and needed to be amplified with drawings of the individual parts. The solid section above the barrel spring brilliantly shows how two cylindrical sleeves at either end of the axle of the conical lantern gear slide on the vertical shaft to accommodate its climb up the helter-skelter ramp.

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