Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Da Vinci Code

Italy was in turmoil. Naples was under the control of the French and Sicily was in the hands of Spain. But intellectual life across Europe was on fire; the Renaissance was underway and a key figure was Leonardo da Vinci.

Fame as the painter of the Mona Lisa may explain why he is known today. Or maybe it's the novel The Da Vinci Code. But during his lifetime da Vinci was valued as an engineer. In a letter to Ludovico il Moro he claimed to have designed machines both for the protection of a city and for siege.

In Venice in 1499 he found employment as an engineer and devised a system of moveable barricades to protect the city from attack. He also had a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River to flood Pisa. His journals include a vast number of inventions, both practical and impractical, including musical instruments, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms, finned mortar shells, and a steam cannon.

For much of his life, Leonardo was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies, including his 1505 Codex on the Flight of Birds. He created plans for several flying machines, including a helicopter and a light hang glider. Most were impractical, like his aerial screw helicopter design that could not provide lift. However, the hang glider has been successfully constructed and demonstrated.

When war over Naples broke out between France and Spain, it became clear that new forms of transportation were needed. Horses had reached the limit of their usefulness and were beginning to spread environmental problems. The cost of feeding them was rising rapidly, especially as war raged in Italy. Then there was the problem of waste. Horse manure was piling up and leaders in every town saw that illness was spreading wherever manure accumulated.

New forms of transportation were needed and after lengthy studies the Pope privately acknowledged that Leonardo da Vinci had the answer. Flight. If man could fly, he would save himself from the encroaching doom that the growing population of horses was delivering. It was painfully clear in the Vatican that mankind would disappear from the face of the Earth if the number of horses and the diseases they spread were allowed to grow unchecked.

Thus, in 1505, it was mandated that man would fly and that da Vinci's theories and designs would become the basis for getting man into the air. Adventurous young men were recruited to test the wings built by experimenters who were guided by da Vinci. They were fitted with wings made of various materials. Feathers when possible. Sometimes silk. Others were tightly woven cotton stretched over bamboo ribs cut to form surfaces intended to provide lift. But something was missing. The young men repeatedly crashed and many were killed. Others crippled, often paralyzed when they fell to Earth, crashing on rocky ground.

The leaders were determined, and ordered more young men to test new wing designs. But the newer designs were no better than the old and more young men died when they failed to lift themselves off the Earth with their primitive flight equipment.

About 250 years later, Daniel Bernoulli discovered some of the shortcomings of da Vinci's thinking about flight. At that point experimenters got closer to the dream of getting airborne. But more knowledge was needed. Power,a ctually. Propulsion. Man simply lacked the muscle to power himself through the air. But by placing an internal combustion engine in the middle of a wing, the possibility of true flight had arrived. The final piece of the puzzle was slipped into the right slot when the Wright Brothers got the first airplane off the ground in 1903, at Kitty Hawk, in the US.

The Wright Brothers owed a lot to Leonardo da Vinci, and a lot to all the scientists and engineers who studied flight over the 400 years following his early efforts. It took a while. But we got there. And we learned an important lesson along the way. Some problems are complex and take a long time to conquer. But we can conquer them if we work on them long enough. That's the true da Vinci Code.


Blogger Winfred Mann said...

I see by your comments on SH that you understand Islam.

6:48 AM  
Blogger no_slappz said...


I think I have some grasp of the basics of Islam.

Moreover, I live in a neighborhood adjacent to a muslim community of about 50,000. Every day I pass women in full burquas and men who have modelled their appearance on Osama bin Laden.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Move before they blow you up!

11:23 PM  

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