Leonardo da Vinci and Technology


For ten years, the RWTH Aachen Department of Medieval History has been researching the Madrid Codex I, Leonardo da Vinci's main manuscript on technical subjects.


Professor Dietrich Lohrmann, chair of the department of medieval history until 2002, and Dr. Thomas Kreft recently published the results under the title "Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid I, Kommentierte Edition." In this annotated edition they are the first to explain the 1,700 drawings and substantial texts. "Leonardo delivers to posterity the available technology of his time. By that we can tell what was common knowledge and what was possible," Lohrmann explains the significance of the manuscript. One insight is that Leonardo certainly did not conceive his inventions out of thin air, but that he developed them on the basis of observations instead.

By inheritance the Codex Madrid I came to a family called Melzi, who sold it to a sculptor named Pompeo Leoni in 1590. In the 18th century, after various changes of ownership, it reached the national library of Spain, where it remains to this day. Temporarily, for a period of 130 years in fact, it was believed lost, because a librarian hat put it in the wrong shelf. It was only in 1965 that the volume reappeared, but it still hadn't been subject to any comprehensive analysis of its contents since.

The codex is a book with two beginnings: The original page count begins from both the front and the back with 1 and the two counts meet in the middle at page 95. This corresponds to a structure in two parts: In the front, Leonardo conceptualized his practical part, providing sophisticated observations on kinematics of machines, and in the back, he located his theoretical part with text on statics and dynamics, with additional experimental designs, as well as sith studies on gear wheel engineering, on damages to shafts or bearings, and on the reduction of friction. Some things got mixed up, however, and some entries appear out of context. Leonardo's addenda also posed a challenge to the Aachen scientists.

Source: Press and Communications