The Doodles in Leonardo da Vinci’s Manuscripts Contain His Groundbreaking Theories on the Laws of Friction, Scientists Discover

Just like the rest of us, Leonar­do da Vin­ci doo­dled and scrib­bled: you can see it in his dig­i­tized note­books, which we fea­tured this past sum­mer. But the pro­to­typ­i­cal Renais­sance man, both unsur­pris­ing­ly and char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, took that scrib­bling and doo­dling to a high­er lev­el entire­ly. Not only do his mar­gin notes and sketch­es look far more ele­gant than most of ours, some of them turn out to reveal his pre­vi­ous­ly unknown ear­ly insight into impor­tant sub­jects. Take, for instance, the study of fric­tion (oth­er­wise known as tri­bol­o­gy), which may well have got its start in what at first just looked like doo­dles of blocks, weights, and pul­leys in Leonar­do’s note­books.

This dis­cov­ery comes from Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor Ian M. Hutch­ings, whose research, says that depart­men­t’s site, “exam­ines the devel­op­ment of Leonar­do’s under­stand­ing of the laws of fric­tion and their appli­ca­tion. His work on fric­tion orig­i­nat­ed in stud­ies of the rota­tion­al resis­tance of axles and the mechan­ics of screw threads, but he also saw how fric­tion was involved in many oth­er appli­ca­tions.”

One page, “from a tiny note­book (92 x 63 mm) now in the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um in Lon­don, dates from 1493” and “con­tains Leonardo’s first state­ment of the laws of fric­tion,” sketch­es of “rows of blocks being pulled by a weight hang­ing over a pul­ley – in exact­ly the same kind of exper­i­ment we might do today to demon­strate the laws of fric­tion.”

“While it may not be pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy unequiv­o­cal­ly the empir­i­cal meth­ods by which Leonar­do arrived at his under­stand­ing of fric­tion,” Hutch­ings writes in his paper, “his achieve­ments more than 500 years ago were out­stand­ing. He made tests, he observed, and he made pow­er­ful con­nec­tions in his think­ing on this sub­ject as in so many oth­ers.” By the year of these sketch­es Leonar­do “had elu­ci­dat­ed the fun­da­men­tal laws of fric­tion,” then “devel­oped and applied them with vary­ing degrees of suc­cess to prac­ti­cal mechan­i­cal sys­tems.”

And though tri­bol­o­gists had no idea of Leonar­do’s work on fric­tion until the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, seem­ing­ly unim­por­tant draw­ings like these show that he “stands in a unique posi­tion as a quite remark­able and inspi­ra­tional pio­neer of tri­bol­o­gy.” What oth­er fields of inquiry could Leonar­do have pio­neered with­out his­to­ry hav­ing prop­er­ly acknowl­edged it? Just as his life inspires us to learn and invent, so research like Hutch­ings’ inspires us to look clos­er at what he left behind, espe­cial­ly at that which our eyes may have passed over before. You can open up Leonar­do’s note­books and have a look your­self. Just make sure to learn his mir­ror writ­ing first.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

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

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

The Ele­gant Math­e­mat­ics of Vit­ru­vian Man, Leonar­do da Vinci’s Most Famous Draw­ing: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.