The Armored-Knight “Robot” Designed by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1495)

Image by Erik Möller, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Those of us who were play­ing video games in the nine­teen-nineties may remem­ber a fun lit­tle plat­former, not tech­ni­cal­ly unim­pres­sive for its time, called Clock­work Knight. The con­cept of a clock­work knight turns out to have had some his­tor­i­cal valid­i­ty, or at least it could poten­tial­ly have been jus­ti­fied by the then-cur­rent state of Leonar­do da Vin­ci stud­ies. Back in the fifties, writes Roy­al Mont­gomery at Unchained Robot­ics, “a team of schol­ars at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia were por­ing over a num­ber of Leonar­do da Vinci’s note­books, specif­i­cal­ly the Codices Atlanti­cus and Madrid.” There they found plans for what turned out to be “a life-size mechan­i­cal knight inside a fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ger­man suit of armor.”

More than one gen­er­a­tion of enthu­si­asts and robot­ics spe­cial­ists have since set about re-cre­at­ing Leonar­do’s “automa­ton.” Before 2007, writes Mont­gomery, “most recon­struct­ed plans includ­ed a mechan­i­cal device in the bel­ly of the knight. It was lat­er deter­mined that this device had noth­ing to do with the knight at all — it was actu­al­ly part of a clock!”

Even if it did­n’t run on lit­er­al clock­work, Leonar­do’s knight would’ve made quite a spec­ta­cle. It “appears to have been assem­bled and dis­played for the first time at a cer­e­mo­ny held by the Prince of Milan, Ludovi­co Sforza in 1495,” and in this sole appear­ance “could sit and stand, lift its own visor, and move its arms. It was stiff, sure, but you try mov­ing grace­ful­ly in 15th cen­tu­ry armor.”

How­ev­er much it amused its aris­to­crat­ic audi­ence, Leonar­do’s sur­rep­ti­tious­ly pul­ley-and-cable-oper­at­ed “robot” would also have offered work­ing, inte­grat­ed proof of the kind of mechan­i­cal sys­tems to which he’d long put his for­mi­da­ble engi­neer­ing mind. And today, as point­ed out at the site of the Robot­ic Online Short Film Fes­ti­val, “we are fas­ci­nat­ed and ter­ri­fied in equal parts by humanoid robots for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es like Atlas, cre­at­ed by the com­pa­ny Boston Dynam­ics for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Unit­ed States). They are all heirs, with twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy, to the robot­ic sol­dier designed by Leonar­do.” The ques­tion of whether he also did any pio­neer­ing work on robot ani­mals who could dance remains a mat­ter of inquiry for future Leonar­do schol­ars.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Explore the Largest Online Archive Explor­ing the Genius of Leonard da Vin­ci

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ele­gant Design for a Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine

The Inge­nious Inven­tions of Leonar­do da Vin­ci Recre­at­ed with 3D Ani­ma­tion

Watch Leonar­do da Vinci’s Musi­cal Inven­tion, the Vio­la Organ­ista, Being Played for the Very First Time

The Amaz­ing Engi­neer­ing of Gauntlets (Armored Gloves) from the 16th Cen­tu­ry

200-Year-Old Robots That Play Music, Shoot Arrows & Even Write Poems: Watch Automa­tons in Action

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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.

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