Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci – Learning From Legends

By on May 2, 2019

I plan to look at many great thinkers over the course of this ‘Learning From Legends Series’. Lined up are Albert Einstein, Nicolai Tesla, Galileo, Fibonacci, and many others. All these people had huge impacts on their chosen scientific fields, and the direction of mankind going forward.

What’s interesting about DaVinci though, is that a lot of his research and many of his inventions had no impact on the scientific community or technological progress. But far from making him less impressive, that’s in many ways what makes him so fascinating. Leonardo DaVinci was a man possessed of an indomitable curiosity, that would lead him to make pioneering discoveries in countless fields: from biology, to engineering, to architecture, to astronomy, and more. And much of this he did for no other reason than to sate that thirst of knowledge. His discoveries would go unpublished, and his genius would go unrecognized for hundreds of years after his death.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Notes

He was the prototypical renaissance man. And in some ways the inventor of steampunk – creating technologies that seemed as though they should never have existed in his time.

Childhood and Early Influences

Rewinding a little, Leonardo was born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, on 15th April, 1452, in the Tuscan town of Vinci. His name literally means Leonardo ‘Of Vinci’ (vin-si).

As is now legend, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of the wealthy Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci and a peasant girl Caterina di Meo Lippi – meaning that he would stand to inherit none of the family estate, and nor would he be able to continue his Father’s business. His Father’s legitimate heirs came from a third marriage, resulting in 12 half-siblings.

Leonardo Da Vinci Self Portrait

DaVinci is largely thought to have been homosexual, was considered attractive, and was in great physical shape. Some suggest that the Vitruvian Man is actually a self-portrait. He was outgoing, confident, and well-liked – which helped him to overcome what would have been social disadvantages at that time.

There is some debate as to whether DaVinci was left-handed or ambidextrous. In fact though, a recent study by researchers from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, suggests that he really was ambidextrous (source). They analysed one of his drawings from 1473 when DaVinci was 21 – believed to be one of his earliest works – and concluded that an inscription on the front had been written in mirror writing with his left hand, while his right hand was used to write more text on the reverse. In all likelihood, Leonardo would have taught himself to use his right hand over his dominant left hand – which may have led to his ambidexterity.

Leonardo Ambidextrous

Other famous minds such as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklyn, Nikolai Tesla are also thought to have been ambidextrous. It’s possible that this may even help to thicken the corpus callosum – the bridge of neural fibers crossing the longitudinal fissure between the left and right hemisphere of the brain – improving ‘whole brain thinking’.

Leonardo had an informal education in Latin, geometry, and mathematics. It was this informal nature of his training that would ensure that many of his discoveries were ignored by the wider communities.

Leonardo Da Vinci Nature

During his childhood, he reportedly spent a lot of time exploring the countryside where he was inspired by nature – the flight of birds and the movements of water. Reportedly, his observations of the movement of water and how it would push an object aided with his subsequent understanding of lift. This time spent observing nature is something that many great thinkers seem to have in common, and the power of nature to inspire is well documented.

Youth and Apprenticeship

Unable to join any of the prestigious guilds owing to the nature of his birth, Leonardo was instead apprenticed to the artist Andrew di Cione, who was known as Verrochio (ver-ockio). His workshop was considered one of the finest in Florence, and was renowned for working in a variety of mediums. It was also responsible for many engineering sketches of bridges and the like for clients such as the powerful Medici family. This aided in Leonardo’s multidisciplinary experience and rounded out his CV.

Other famous artists, including Botticelli, would also apprentice here and much of the workshop’s output was in fact handled by these apprentices.

Adoration of the Magi

Legend has it that after observing Leonardo’s work on the painting The Baptism of Christ (his contribution being two angels), Verrocchio was so impressed that he retired from painting – as the pupil had surpassed the master. By the age of 20, Leonardo qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke – a guild of artists and medical doctors. His father later set him up with his own workshop, but he continued to work closely with Verrochio, while also working on his own commissions such as the never-completed The Adoration of the Magi.

Around 1478 (a couple of years after Leonardo evaded charges of sodomy), Florence and Naples almost went to war, and the men from DaVinci’s guild were tasked with designing weapons and defences to help defend the city. A job that DaVinci took a clear liking to.

Leonardo Da Vinci Gun

By this time, Leonardo had already begun keeping extremely detailed notes of his ideas, inventions, and observations. His ideas included designs for weapons such as a giant crossbow, for machinery such as waterwheels and hoists, and studies in math, nature, and biology. Over 15,000 of DaVinci’s notes have survived, collected into works called codices.

Among his writings, DaVinci wrote numerous ‘to-do lists’. These weren’t filled with house-hold chores like taking out trash however, but rather included lists of experts whose brains he could pick: “get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle”, as well as random questions, observations, and areas for further investigation. Particularly well known is his note-to-self reading “describe the tongue of the woodpecker”. Such instructions clearly demonstrate his insatiable thirst for knowledge.

get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle

These notes are also well known for having been written backward. Some say that this was a form of code, but in all likelihood it was simply a result of DaVinci’s preference for writing with his left hand. Due to the design of quills at the time, it would have been easier for him to write this way.

Leonardo Da Vinci Notes Fetus

Moving to Milan

Years later, Leonardo would move to Milan. To secure work in the region, DaVinci first made contact with the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, describing himself as a weapons engineer and musician – only mentioning in passing that he could also paint. To try and curry favour, he showed several weapons designs to Sforza, including his now-famous ‘tank’ or armored vehicle. This was a weapons platform that would be powered by the passengers themselves, allowing them to carry and operate far greater artillery, and that would be covered in sloped armor so as to deflect enemy weaponry.

Leonardo's Tank

The design – while never actually created – allegedly would have worked save for one distinctive error: cogs inserted backward. It has since been suggested that Leonardo actually incorporated this error on purposes to protect his invention during a time before patents.

Other weapons designed by DaVinci, included a 33-barrelled quasi-machine gun that reduced the amount of time required for firearms to be reloaded, and a scuba diving suit that could be used to take out enemy ships from beneath. The diving suit wasn’t the first such design, but was particularly well thought out.

These design show not only DaVinci’s engineering skills and fervent imagination, but also his understanding of tactics and warfare. These devices solved common problems and created new strategic possibilities – while also introducing significant shock and awe to the battlefield.

Da Vinci's Horse

Unfortunately for DaVinci, Sforza was more interested in his artistic talents than his weapons designs, commissioning him to paint a portrait of his wife (Lady with an Ermine), and then to sculpt a 24 foot tall bronze horse – which in reality would likely have been impossible for him to complete without a studio of his own. After winging it and showing a prototype of the horse however, DaVinci was accepted into the royal court.

DaVinci also worked as a theatre produced for Sforza during this time, wowing audiences with his technological special effects. No doubt this experience would further inform many of his later inventions.

Sforza decided to go to war prior to the completion of the horse, which fortunately got him off the hook (the metal resources were better used elsewhere at this point). During this time, Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Last Supper, which took him three years to complete but demonstrates many of his studies in mathematics, physics, human behavior, and the properties of light.

The Last Supper

Leonardo would spend a further 17 years in Sforza’s royal court. During this time, DaVinci also kept himself busy working on his own personal projects. Among the most notable was his work on cadavers, which he kept quiet in order to avoid another scandal and upset with the Catholic church. His detailed sketches of the human body are today considered revolutionary, and include a comprehensive and accurate depiction of the heart with correct understanding of the operation of its valves, ventricles, and atriums. He was also the first to observe the S-shaped curvature of the spine.

Leonardo Da Vinci Spine

Curators at the Royal Collection Trust say that had the works been published, they would have “formed the most influential works on the human body ever produced”.

That said, his understanding of the circulatory system was not perfect – as he believed that the muscles would ‘consume’ the blood they received. Nevertheless, many believe that these sketches are among his most impressive works; marrying his curiosity, scientific understanding, and beautiful illustrations.

Leonardo Da Vinci Heart

Another of DaVinci’s most famous works during this time was the robot knight commissioned by Sforza himself as a tool for impressing and entertaining guests. The ‘robot’ was not powered by electricity of course, but was complex enough to wave its arms, express using its eyes and mouth, and even walk. It was operated entirely by cables, cranks, and gears. The design was eventually rebuilt by roboticist Mark Rosheim. Even more complex was the self-propelled cart, which was effectively programmable – using an incredibly detailed mechanism to enable pre-set routes. This was also successfully reconstructed.

Another of DaVinci’s creations from this time to have been re-imagined is the Viola Organista – an organ that emulated a string instrument. Like a modern synthesizer!

Latter Years

When the Sforza family lost its power and the French invaded, DaVinci would return to Florence in 1500 at the ripe age of 50, where he would develop a rivalry with young upstart painter Michelangelo. During this time, he also took another stab at military design working for the ruthless Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. He became the chief general engineer, supervising the construction of towers as well as creating birds-eye view maps of cities which were – as with much of DaVinci’s work – well ahead of their time. The then-unusual ‘satellite’ approach made the maps far clearer and more useful than other maps of that time.

Da Vinci Satellite Map of Imola

He also went on to design more crazy future-weapons – like his giant crossbow.

It turned out that Borgas was a little too ruthless for DaVinci however, who was at heart a pacifist, and so he built an Iron Man suit and began the process of confiscating all of his misappropriated weaponry.

Sorry, wrong guy.

DaVinci fled Borgas’ employ in the dead of night, before returning to Florence. Here, living on the money he earned from his work for Borgas, he would paint the Mona Lisa as a personal passion project. He also spent much of this time building wings.

As is extremely well documented, flight was DaVinci’s absolute passion, and he spent untold amounts of time designing incredible flying machines, and studying the flight of birds. Some of his earliest notes include designs for planes and helicopters. One of his earliest attempts was the ‘aerial screw’ that would effectively wind itself into the air like a helicopter. While this design likely wouldn’t have worked, it demonstrated a keen understanding of lift well ahead of his time.

Leonardo da Vinci FLying Machine

While he never built a working flying machine, his closest design was the ornithopter which was a human-powered flying machine that utilized huge wings. Human powered ornithopters have eventually been constructed, demonstrating that the idea was at least sound in theory.

DaVinci would eventually live out his last years in France, invited as he was by King Francis the 1st, and given the use of his manor house Clos Luce. Leonardo suffered a stroke at the age of 65 that robbed him of the use of one arm. He died in 1519, leaving behind the Mona Lisa and his many workbooks. This is why so much of his art is displayed in the Louvre in Paris.

Leonardo Flight


Looking back at DaVinci’s legacy, what is most striking is the sheer breadth of his studies. We haven’t even discussed the ways in which his art was actually informed by mathematics – how he would utilize golden ratios and the Fibonacci sequence to make his imagery more aesthetically pleasing, or how he would play with perspective and lighting drawing from his own studies and experience as a theatre producer. The Vitruvian Man is perhaps the perfect example of this, being not only a highly accurate depiction of the human form, but also a kind of thought experiment, showing how that form could hypothetically be used to solve an impossible math problem – ‘squaring a circle’. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Vitruvian Man is also what inspired my own logo!

DaVinci also designed damns and submarines, experimented with geometry, and made many fascinating observations in the fields of astronomy and geography. He theorized on the nature of tectonic plates, and suggested that the dark spots on the moon couldn’t have been vapor as they wouldn’t remain static were that the case! He even designed glasses for ‘viewing the moon large’. He researched biology, botany, architecture, and countless other fields. All of this was self-directed, driven by pure passion for knowledge. Rarely was he motivated by money or fame. And this multi-disciplinary nature was not a limitation, but in fact one of his greatest strengths. His ability to draw on disparate fields like art, science, and math, gave him a unique perspective that others lacked.

Learning Typing Coding

In all his studies, he took a rigorously scientific approach – using his hypotheses as the basis for testing and observation. Never did he let his lack of qualifications or formal training stand in his way.

THIS is what we can all learn from DaVinci. To follow our interests and to never assume that we can’t contribute valuable ideas and works. We live in an era where it takes decades of studies to reach the top of a field, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make new contributions – and especially if you combine your unique interests. Individuals can still make huge contributions, as we see in cases such as Srinivasa Ramanujan’s.

Even if it doesn’t lead to a big career change, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue what fascinates you, or conduct your own experiments. There are few feelings more exciting than coming up with a truly unique idea or invention.

Vitruvian Man

And with the tools available to us today – tools for learning and creating – our individual potential is limitless. Imagine if DaVinci had access to the internet and a 3D printer.

DaVinci had relentless optimism and self-belief, being convinced that someday he would be able to conquer gravity and master flight. What could be more inspiring than that? Imagine if DaVinci eventually had have built his working ornithopter and had taken to the skies on the power of his imagination alone.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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