Edison's Concrete Piano
Flying tanks, six-nippled sheep, walk-on-water shoes, and 12 other flops from great inventors
By Judy Wearing, Emily Schultz
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2009 Judy Wearing
All rights reserved.
LEONARDO DA VINCI'S WALK-ON-WATER SHOES 1452-1519
From obscure beginnings in a small town in Italy over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci has become one of the most famous individuals in the history of Western civilization. His great work, the Mona Lisa, is the single most visited painting in the world; it also holds the record for the painting most subjected to vandalism. Whether fan or critic of this enigmatic figure, da Vinci's power to affect people's emotions is undeniable. His first biographer, the Italian Giorgio Vasari, who was eight years old at the time of da Vinci's death, wrote of him, "celestial influences may shower extraordinary gifts on certain human beings, which is an effect of nature; but there is something supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might." The list of disciplines that have some claim to assess his accomplishments is long and includes art, geology, optics, anatomy, music, mathematics, botany, mechanics, general physics, astronomy, literature, theater, geography and cartography, graphics, engineering, architecture, hydraulics, and chemistry. And yet, despite his universally accepted genius and his timeless influence, da Vinci's life was full of failure at every turn. He is a paradox, as enshrouded in mystery and as intriguing by nature as Mona Lisa herself.
Da Vinci was a homo universalis and presents a near perfect distilment of the quattrocento. As a boy he was a classmate of Botticelli, and later he rubbed shoulders with Michelangelo in Florence, as well as many other artistic geniuses who sought to understand nature as a whole. He was also an illegitimate child, a product of a brief union between a peasant woman and a notary. Da Vinci's illegitimacy had a profound influence on his failures and successes throughout his life. He was taken from his mother's household and raised by his grandparents on their small farm, though it is speculated that he likely visited his mother and her subsequent family from time to time. The disrupted bonding between mother and child undoubtedly had an influence on his psyche in negative ways that could have contributed to his failures; Freud would agree.
More directly, being illegitimate restricted his education and choice of career. He was not allowed to learn Latin formally or go to university, nor could he follow in his father's footsteps and become a notary, doctor, or any of the "noble professions." Instead, the best careers available to him were in the "mechanical arts," in many respects equivalent to the "trades" of today. His lack of Latin certainly impeded his book learning, and his own words suggest it impeded his societal standing as well: "I well know that, not being a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably deride me with the allegation that I am a man without letters."
As a young teenager, da Vinci entered the studio of the craftsman Verrocchi, in Florence, as an apprentice. Fortunately for him, the time and place dictated that painting, sculpting, architecture, metalworking, and engineering were all considered to be of the same realm, and it was normal for one man to pursue them all, which was just how da Vinci liked it.
It is impossible to give a comprehensive list of da Vinci's successes and failures as an inventor for several reasons. For one, the collection of his surviving personal notebooks is incomplete. Begun when he was about 30, the notebooks record many of his thoughts (though presumably not all as the notes are relatively devoid of emotion). Here we find everything from grocery lists, library catalogs, studies for his famous artworks, anatomical and scientific studies, sketches of inventions, explorations of physical phenomena (such as motion on an inclined plane), attempts to solve major geometric puzzles of the day, stories, poems, and quips and doodles of all kinds. We do not have anywhere near the entire collection of his notes, and we do not have a clear frame of reference to determine how much of the notes are copies da Vinci made from other books, improvements he made on existing material, or original concepts. We also do not know the extent to which he tried the inventions he illustrated. Da Vinci made much of "experimentation," stating, "Before you base a law on this case test it two or three times and see whether the tests produce the same effects," but no records of measurements exist.
We do know that he had a workshop studio at the Sforza court of Milan and technicians in his employ. We also know that part of his salaried duties in Milan, and later in France, included the design and building of devices used in special events and festivals that are not described on paper, such as a robotic lion. All we have are secondhand accounts of this walking mechanical beast, which was created to entertain the French King Francis I. Sixteenth-century historian Piero Parenti wrote in 1509:
When the King entered Milan, besides the other entertainments, Lionardo da Vinci, the famous painter and our Florentine, devised the following intervention: he represented a lion above the gate, which, lying down, got onto its feet when the King came in, and with its paw opened up its chest and pulled out blue balls full of gold lilies, which he threw and strewed about on the ground. Afterwards he pulled out his heart and, pressing it, more gold lilies came out, showing how the Florentine Marzocco, represented by such an animal, had his guts full of lilies. Stopping beside this spectacle, [the King] liked it and took much pleasure in it.
The robotic lion made an impression.... And yet, it is absent from da Vinci's surviving notebooks. Perhaps the great man did not record all of the work he did while on the job; it is conceivable that da Vinci's notebooks record some data about his inventions but not all. All of which leads to the unfortunate conclusion that we do not have, and never will have, enough information to judge da Vinci as an inventor. Any discussion of da Vinci the inventor must take this into account, and we must assess the man and his work as holistically as possible in light of the imperfect picture we have.
There is one realm where da Vinci's success as an inventor is undisputed, and that is his artistry. His works in painting and drawing are not only among the most revered in all of European art, but they represent inventions on a multitude of levels; with virtually every painting, da Vinci turned convention on its head. At a minimum, he heavily influenced his peers and future schools of artists; in some cases, he single-handedly advanced an art form. For example, his Study of a Tuscan Landscape is the first dated landscape study in the history of Western art. He introduced a preparatory sketch style that featured alternate lines, and the systems of light and shade he created were novel among Italian painters. His use of tone, color, reflection, and shine are unique. Raphael and Giorgione both openly copied da Vinci's masterful style. He played a role in influencing portraiture by creating a personal connection between the viewer and the subject, and his works were key to the birth of Mannerism. He invented compositional motifs, such as the pyra-midal arrangement of the Virgin with Christ and St. John, as seen in the painting Madonna of the Rocks, and the placement of Christ on the same side of the table as his disciples in The Last Supper (something that would have been considered very radical in da Vinci's day). These new forms of iconography were repeated by others for generations. His techniques were also unique; he applied multiple layers of paint so thinly that X-ray imaging reveals only ghostly images instead of the sharp outlines revealed in other artists' work. Da Vinci was a master of technique, as well as form, light and shadow, atmosphere, composition, viewer psychology, motion, gesture, and drama.
Da Vinci's art was a scientific and engineering endeavor. He took great pains to study and understand light, movement, anatomy, and any other branch of science that had an impact on his art. His understanding of light and shadow is in no small part responsible for the magical qualities of his paintings. His understanding of perspective and perception allowed him to manipulate reality in scenes such as The Last Supper, making us party to his suspension of natural dimension, light, and space in order to experience his desired effect—a personal encounter with the 12 disciples seated for dinner at a dramatic moment. His study of anatomy was exemplary, not only for its artistry but also its accuracy. Though not infallible (for example, he connected "the spinal chord to the penis in order to transmit the vital spirits into the sperm"), da Vinci's observation skills were astute. His detailed description of the form and function of the heart's aortic valve and the flow of blood within it have proven to be accurate in recent decades through the use of imaging technology.
Da Vinci's anatomical drawings represent another facet of his invention—the techniques of scientific illustration. Virtually every aspect and graphic effect used up to modern times to communicate anatomical form and function through illustration can be found in these drawings, including 3-d shapes within a transparent body, sections, inset magnifications of key features, rotation of solid forms, functional diagrams, and transparent layers.
Despite all the success of da Vinci's artistry, he also had many failures. For one, he did not finish many paintings, relatively speaking. He sold few paintings and no sculptures. Many of his most famous works were never passed on to the people who paid him to paint them. He failed to get jobs he wanted, abandoned commissions he was given, and left contractual obligations unfulfilled. He experimented with important works by using new techniques, sometimes with disastrous results. For example, a battle scene to be painted on a wall in Florence, for which he expended great efforts in planning and drawing, was done with a new blend of paint, which ran down the wall in a mess before it could dry. Likewise, The Last Supper was painted with experimental techniques and deteriorated quicker than it should have as a result. A similar story of impractical plans that came to naught can be found in a statue commissioned by his longtime patron, Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan. Da Vinci worked over six years, off and on, on the bronze statue that ambitiously attempted to create a larger-than-life horse and rider balanced on two feet. The scheme involved great feats of practical engineering never before attempted, which required him to invent new methods for casting, new furnace designs, and alloys. Ultimately, these ideas proved to be impractical.
Though painting may be considered the realm of his greatest success, it seems that da Vinci did not particularly like doing it. At age 30, to facilitate his aim of leaving Florence for greener pastures, he sought the patronage of Ludovico Sforza. In the letter he sent to sell himself as a potential employee, painting is very low down on his list of abilities. Instead, da Vinci talks about contributions he can make in civil and military engineering and describes inventions to aid in both. In the letter, nine items address military inventions, and the tenth states: "In time of peace, I believe that I can compete with anyone in architecture, and in the construction of both public and private monuments, and in the building of canals. I am able to execute statues in marble, bronze, and clay; in painting I can do as well as anyone else ..." Leonardo da Vinci considered himself an inventor first and foremost, with a keen interest in military applications. Though he apprenticed with a painter, the decorative arts were not his first choice of career, and creating art, in the purest sense, was not a priority for him. People do not necessarily like doing best what they are best at doing.
The strong interest in war da Vinci expresses in his letter to Ludovico Sforza is ironic, for da Vinci was a peaceful sort. He called war "a most beastly madness." This was a man who held life sacred to the utmost. He was a vegetarian and is reported to have walked through the markets buying birds for the sole purpose of giving them freedom. At first blush, it seems deeply hypocritical for him to have pursued military engineering as a career, so to speak. However, in his time, military engineering was the most illustrious of the mechanical arts, the highest post attainable to him, and the one that was the best paid.
The status accorded to military engineers was a practical consequence of the importance of defense and offensive capacity of the leading faction, for 15th- and 16th-century Italy was a place of uncertain politics and certain conflict. Da Vinci seems to have been good at playing the game, managing to keep himself in employ through allegiance to the right men at the right time and moving when necessary to avoid any nasty consequences, such as hanging and quartering. His military inventions were profuse, and he was in high demand. In his notebooks, we find fortified walls, explosive shells, ballistas, arquebuses, assault vehicles, and a mobile lock to flood a river at will and drown an army, Red Sea style.
The designs for these devices are impressive, though the extent to which da Vinci had a hand in inventing them, or attempted to build them, is unknown. All that can be said with confidence is that da Vinci was innovative in his approach to military engineering. Not all of his designs were practical however. For example, his giant crossbow, a device he returned to many times, defied physics and couldn't work. Another example of his impractical invention is an outrageous design for a shield; the drawing shows a shield fitted with a trapdoor that opens to seize an approaching sword. Da Vinci seems to have gotten his fill of military deployment when he joined the entourage of the murderous Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli's inspiration for The Prince, for less than seven months in the winter of 1502. After this, his interest in military engineering waned.
Da Vinci's other inventions include practical mechanical items like locks, gears, pumps, pulleys, jacks, bearings, hinges, axles, and springs, as well as larger contraptions like textile machines, mills, engravers, timekeepers, plumbing, devices to escape from prison and swim underwater, a drawing machine, a camera obscura, an automatic street washer, giant excavators, water pumps, a parachute, machines to make rope and coins, and even a sort of plastic. One of his later designs for a glider has been tested in modern times with success. Again, it is unclear to what extent, if any, these devices and gadgets were built or used in da Vinci's lifetime.
Yet grander schemes included a town plan with three levels: the upper pedestrian level was reserved for gentlemen, the ground level bustled with the general populace and roads for the distribution of goods, and an underground level housed a sewage system with good circulation to keep disease at a minimum. He also dreamed up self-cleaning stables and a means to drain the Pontine Marshes. More plans recorded in his notebooks include: shaving off the tops of hills to facilitate a line of fire, escape tunnels, joining Florence to the sea via a canal, and building a bridge that joined Europe to Asia. One of these schemes was actually tried during his day; troops were deployed to dig a trench west of Pisa to redirect the river Arno from the sea. Unsurprisingly, it failed miserably. It was overambitious and grossly miscalculated. The river refused to flow into the channel, preferring the path of its own making.
Da Vinci's walk-on-water shoes were part of one of his more grandiose schemes—to wage war via water. The image of a man wearing the shoes appears in the Codex Atlanticus amid drawings of machines and devices to lift water. But it was part of a military line of thought that included several ideas, such as sending divers into combat armed with sharp cutlasses and drills to poke holes in the hulls of enemy vessels. While totally sci-fi in character, the concepts are not completely outrageous. "Frogmen" are employed by modern military forces for a variety of tasks today, including infiltrating enemy vessels, reconnaissance, transportation of troops, deactivation of explosives, and planting weapons in enemy territory. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Edison's Concrete Piano by Judy Wearing, Emily Schultz. Copyright © 2009 Judy Wearing. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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