Leonardo da Vinci, most famous for painting the Mona Lisa, was an Italian man who lived and worked from the Late Medieval Period through to the Renaissance. He was considered a genius; as well as being an accomplished artist, da Vinci was fascinated by life, anatomy and engineering, and believed strongly that humans would one day be able to fly. Beginning by studying birds and how they fly, da Vinci produced Codex on the Flight of Birds around 1505. Examining gravity, balance and weight, he produced many drawings of birds in flight and the anatomical mechanisms behind this action.
From this, da Vinci began to sketch ideas for an ornithopter (the word coming from the Greek ornithos “bird” and pteron “wing”). An ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings, mimicking the actions of a bird, insect or bat.
Leonardo da Vinci concluded that humans on their own are too heavy and not strong enough to fly with wings attached to their arms. He drew a machine where the person lies on a plank and works two large wings using hand levers, foot pedals, and a system of pulleys. He even constructed a machine himself and attempted to fly off a mountain in Florence, but failed. He also drew plans for an early version of a helicopter, designing a basic rotary wing.
Leonardo da Vinci’s works and drawings on the possibilities of flight were never published, and he died in 1519 with his dreams still a long way off from becoming reality. Eventually, his writing and sketches made their way around the world, and are now scattered in various collections and museums. Early on, he understood that “an object offers as much resistance to the air as the air does to the object,” and he defined early principles of basic rational aircraft design, but without the added scientific ideas that were necessary. Although not having any strong influence on modern flight as we know it, there’s no doubt that this remarkable man would have been amazed to look up at the sky now and see his dreams as reality.