The great artist Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks probably
started out as just a way for him to improve the quality of his
paintings. He studied anatomy to portray the human body accurately.
He studied plants and rocks to make them authentic for his paintings.
Somewhere along the line, however, the books became more than
that. They became a record of his life-long fascination with nature
and his genius for invention.
At the time of his death in 1519 Leonardo was known
as a great artist, but his capabilities as an engineer, scientist
and inventor were less appreciated. After his demise, his notebooks
fell into the possession of his favorite apprentice Francesco
Melzi. Melzi held onto most of them and kept them safe until his
own death in 1579. Melzi heirs had less respect for the material,
however, and sold pages off to collectors or gave them away to
In 1630 Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor in the Court of
the King of Spain, got a hold of much of the material and tried
to organize it by subject. This unfortunatley resulted in the
books being taken apart and the original order, which might have
told us much about Leonardo's thinking, was lost. Each of the
new books created by this process was a Codex.
of Leonardo's anatomy drawings probably done from a dissection.
In many of his books Leonardo employed a backwards
form of writing that could only be read with a mirror. It is unknown
why he did this. Some historians speculate he did it to keep his
writings private, others think that because he was left-handed
he just found it easier and faster to write this way.
Clearly the notebooks were written for his own personal
use. The organization is minimal. The lettering is quick, sloppy
and often without punctuation. There is some indication he employed
a personal shorthand, making the content confusing to read. In
many places the pen seems to race along trying to keep up with
the revelations of the mind.
Much of the books appear to be lab notes. Leonardo
used the scientific method before the scientific method had been
invented. In one revealing passage he states, "First I shall
make some experiments before I proceed further, because my intention
is to consult experience first and then by means of reasoning
show why such experiment is bound to work in such a way. And this
is the rule by which those who analyze natural effects must proceed;
and although nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience,
we must follow the opposite course, namely (as I said before),
begin with the experience and by means of it investigate the cause."
Over time most of the notebooks have found their
way into various museums, archives or libraries around the world.
Only one is in private hands. Two were totally unknown until 1966
when they were found by chance in the National Library of Madrid.
Presently there are ten known codices containing Leonardo's sketches
flying machine that works by flapping its wings.
Atlanticus - This document contains information on
mathematics, geometry, astronomy, botany, zoology and the military
arts. It is held by the Biblioteca Ambrosianain in Milan, Italy.
There are some 1,119 pages in this work spread over 12 volumes.
This sketchbook contains some of Leonardo's most famous drawings
Of particular interest are the pages on gliders
and flying machines. Most of Leonardo's aerial machines were designed
after he studied birds. For this reason they generated their forward
motion by mechanisms designed to flap the wings. In his notes
he recorded, "the bird is an instrument functioning according
to mathematical laws, and man has the power to reproduce an instrument
like this with all its movements."
He built a working model of one of his flying machines
and on January 2, 1496, he recorded in his notes that he was going
to attempt to fly it the next day. It is unknown whether he didn't
try or if the flight was a failure. Later on he did make a note
to himself to try any more flying experiments over a lake where
he would be less likely to be injured in a landing. Atlanticus
also contains a design for a parachute which might have been conceived
to allow for the safe escape of any pilot from a flying device.
giant crossbow found in Codex Atlanticus
Leonardo's man-powered flight designs, though ingenious, would
never have worked. A man cannot generate enough energy with his
muscles to lift himself and a flying machine off the ground without
the use of very high efficiency designs and materials made possible
by modern technology. If Leonardo had concentrated more on building
a glider, rather than a powered flying machine, he might have
been much more successful in getting off the ground.
Atlanticus also contains a number of military designs
including those for a giant crossbow and a compact version of
a wooden spring catapult designed to hurl boulders. There were
also siege machines created to defeat city walls and span moats
and designs for castles and fortifications.
Arundel - This book resides in the British Library
in London and is one of the ones created by the cutting and pasting
of pages from other works. Most of the material deals with the
study of geometry, weights and architecture and the pages seem
to have been authored between 1480 and 1518. Among other items,
the Arundel document contains a design for a primitive tank that
resembles a flying saucer as well as plans for an underwater diving
of the Institute of France - These are twelve documents
(referred to as A-M) of varying sizes that cover a variety of
areas including hydraulics, military art, optics, geometry and
bird flight. One of Leonardo's most well known-designs, a primitive
helicopter, is included
man-powered helicopter designed by Leonardo da Vinci
in manuscript B. The device was designed to be operated
by four men. The men would never have had the strength necessary
to create sufficient lift, but if a suitable engine had been substituted
it might have actually gotten off the ground.
Trivulzianus - There are only 55 pages in this document
currently held in Milan. The subjects of this collection include
religion, architecture and literature. It is thought the pages
in this work were composed between 1487 and 1490.
"On the Flight of Birds" - This short work of only
17 pages is a very careful study Leonardo did in 1505 on the mechanics
of flight and the movement of air.
Ashburnham - This is actually composed of two documents
held by the Institute of France. It primarily consists of pictorial
studies drawn between 1489 and 1492.
Forster - These are three different documents held
at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They are composed
of studies about geometry, weights and hydraulic machines. Written
between 1490 and 1505,
early version of a tank found in Codex Arundel.
Leicester - This manuscript was in the news when it
was purchased by Bill Gates in 1995 for $30.8 million. It contains
64 pages mostly dedicated to Leonardo's theories on astronomy,
the properties of water, rocks and fossils, air and celestial
light. It is currently exhibited in the Seattle Museum of Art.
Royal Documents - These pages are part of the royal
collection at Windsor Castle. The subjects include anatomy and
geography, horse studies, drawings, caricatures and a series of
maps. There are about 600 unbound pages created between 1478 and
Madrid Codices - These manuscripts were found in the
archives of the National Library of Madrid. There are two volumes
bound in red morocco leather and contain 197 pages on geometry