Leonardo da Vinci Draws Designs of Future War Machines: Tanks, Machine Guns & More

precursor to machine gun

We think of Leonar­do da Vin­ci as one of the great human­ists, a thinker and cre­ator whose achieve­ments spanned the realms of art, archi­tec­ture, nat­ur­al sci­ence, engi­neer­ing, and let­ters. We less often think of him as an inno­va­tor of the tools of as destruc­tive a prac­tice as war, but a true poly­math — and the life of Leonar­do more or less defines that con­cept — knows no bound­aries. The web­site Leonar­do da Vin­ci Inven­tions lists among the machines he came up with an armored car (“pre­cur­sor to the mod­ern tank”), an 86-foot cross­bow, and a triple bar­rel can­non (at a time when even gun­pow­der itself had­n’t yet attained world­wide use).


Many of Leonar­do’s inven­tions, no mat­ter how thor­ough­ly he dia­grammed their designs and mechan­ics in his note­books, nev­er got out of the realm of the the­o­ret­i­cal in his life­time — and some remain machines of the imag­i­na­tion. But as Nick Squires report­ed in the Tele­graph a few years ago, a late 15th-cen­tu­ry can­non dug up in Croa­t­ia “bears a strik­ing resem­blance to sketch­es drawn by the Renais­sance inven­tor, notably in his Codex Atlanti­cus — the largest col­lec­tion of his draw­ings and writ­ing. Mount­ed on a wood­en car­riage and wheels, it would have allowed a much more rapid rate of fire than tra­di­tion­al sin­gle-bar­reled guns — in a pre­cur­sor to mod­ern day machine guns.”


Italian-renaissance-art.com offers more detail on all these Leonar­do-designed weapons, and the his­tor­i­cal con­text which drove him to work on them:

He was a man of his time and the need for mil­i­tary engi­neers pro­vid­ed him with employ­ment, trav­el oppor­tu­ni­ties, and the chance to con­tin­ue his sci­en­tif­ic work unhin­dered. Renais­sance Italy was a col­lec­tion of inde­pen­dent city states who became engaged in inces­sant war­fare with each oth­er.

“This pro­vid­ed a mar­ket for the tech­ni­cal­ly advanced weapons need­ed to gain mil­i­tary advan­tage over the ene­my” — and an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Leonar­do to work out his ideas for “new weapon­ry, bridg­ing, bom­bard­ing machines, trench drain­ing,” and more. Leonar­do’s work dur­ing this peri­od includ­ed 15th-cen­tu­ry blue­prints for “an armored vehi­cle made from wood and oper­at­ed by eight men” turn­ing cranks, an antiq­ui­ty-inspired “scythed char­i­ot,” breech-load­ing and water-cooled guns not entire­ly dif­fer­ent in con­cept from the steam can­nons used in the World War II, and “a repeat­ing ‘machine gun’ oper­at­ed by a man-pow­ered tread­mill.”


You can see a real-life exam­ple of Leonar­do’s leaf-spring cat­a­pult built by a Soci­ety for Cre­ative Anachro­nism mem­ber here. But if you try to fol­low the instruc­tions and assem­ble his oth­er inge­nious mil­i­tary devices, pre­pare for dis­ap­point­ment. The Tele­graph’s Tom Leonard wrote up an ear­ly-2000s BBC doc­u­men­tary that claimed this Renais­sance Man’s Renais­sance Man “insert­ed a series of delib­er­ate flaws into his inven­tions to make sure that they could nev­er be used,” for instance, “when the tank, a tor­toise-like con­trap­tion, was test­ed by the Army, it imme­di­ate­ly became clear that its gears had been set against each oth­er.”

Leonar­do pos­si­bly crip­pled his own designs in order to serve the func­tion of absent “patent laws to pro­tect him from hav­ing his designs copied,” and pos­si­bly because he “was a paci­fist who was aware that his war­lord mas­ters might try to find mil­i­tary uses for his inven­tions.” Either way, at least he died a few hun­dred years too ear­ly to wit­ness the First World War, in which tanks, machine guns, and all the rest of it turned into sure­ly more hor­ri­fy­ing a spec­ta­cle than all the bat­tles of Renais­sance Italy put togeth­er.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load the Sub­lime Anato­my Draw­ings of Leonar­do da Vin­ci: Avail­able Online, or in a Great iPad App

Orig­i­nal Por­trait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Lay­ers of da Vinci’s Mas­ter­piece

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Hand­writ­ten Resume (1482)

Leonar­do Da Vinci’s To Do List (cir­ca 1490) Is Much Cool­er Than Yours

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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