*Every photo featured in today's blog was taken at the "Da Vinci Machines & Robotics Exhibition" currently on display at Las Vegas Natural History Museum through September 10, 2022.
"The Master of Simplicity"
Leonardo da Vinci, often referred to as “the Master” due to his advanced and seemingly ethereal understanding of mathematics, science, and fine art, was also the master of simplicity.
One of the first lessons today’s engineers are taught is the principle of KIS—Keep It Simple (1), This is taught early in engineering education due to the tendency of most people to over-engineer or over-think a project. Many creative people are prone to the pitfall of over-engineering and while it can result in clever and unique solutions to problems, they aren't usually the simplest. When trying to solve a problem in the most efficient manner, KIS is the way to go.
It would be easy to think da Vinci used his unique brain only to focus on solving complicated problems in complicated ways. As the master of simplicity, however, da Vinci solved regular, day-to-day, conundrums in the most obvious ways, ways that can seem so simple, many would wonder how no one could have thought of them sooner. While there is no evidence anyone taught da Vinci the principle of KIS (2), this quality is evident in many of his inventions.
In da Vinci’s day, huge stone structures were all the rage. To help build with and maneuver large blocks of stone and other heavy objects, Da Vinci designed various cranes and hoists. His “Column Hoist” is unique in that it relied only on the physics of a screw to raise extremely heavy objects. While it may have taken a while, a heavy object such as a stone slab could be hoisted by the power of only one person turning a crank or a spindle.
Only one person raising or lowering a heavy stone slab was unthinkable prior to da Vinci's invention, and yet it seems so obvious. How many other inventors of da Vinci's day slapped their foreheads on seeing it, "Of course turning a screw will slowly raise or lower an object! Why didn't I think of that?" Da Vinci's array of cranes and pulley systems were designed with ease of function in mind that made lifting and transporting large heavy objects much easier (3).
An idea that played off of da Vinci’s Column Hoist incorporated tongs that relied only on the power of gravity to clamp down on a heavy item. Again, an idea that makes perfect sense and is so obvious! The heavier the item the better it worked! What an elegant solution to a problem that surely vexed everyone until da Vinci set to the task of solving it. Da Vinci had no need to over-engineer, he just kept it simple.
One of the most common difficulties people faced in the Middle Ages was how to get from one side of a stream to another. Permanent bridges were few and far between, and certainly much more infrequent than say, an invading army, or a nobleman’s entourage would like. This problem had flummoxed many, but da Vinci solved it handily by designing a portable self-supported bridge that could be assembled over streams, was held together using gravity and it’s own weight, was not reliant upon time-consuming nails or complicated screws, and could be disassembled and carried in pieces until it was needed again. Imagine a large Lincoln log set that could be unpacked and put together, then taken apart and packed away it until it was needed again...ingenious, yet surprisingly obvious.
Famous for working well into the night, da Vinci needed a way to keep track of time during nighttime hours. This was at a time when pocket watches and even home clocks were unknown. Da Vinci invented a dual-duty candle that provided light and also burned at a pre-determined rate. As the candle burned steadily, the rate at which it burned could be gauged and measured precisely, so he would have been able to tell whether he had been designing masterpieces for 4 hours or only 2!
Similar candles had been invented at various times in early human history and it is not clear whether da Vinci based his idea on these earlier types, or whether he “reinvented” it out of necessity. What is known, is that da Vinci’s design of what he called the "Night Clock" incorporated a candleholder that a could be used to literally “tell the time” by how far the candle had burned down.
The anemometer (for measuring air speed) could tell you how strong the wind was blowing. While this wasn’t the first device ever created that attempted to measure wind velocity, da Vinci was the first to add a fixed stand that could be used to measure how far the thin and precisely weighted strip of metal was blown. This allowed for a reliable and constant measurement of how fast the wind was blowing. This instrument, when made to exact specifications, (like his time-measuring candle) could allow anyone to have a tool that would provide them standardized data about the wind. For the first time in human history data such as this could be gathered and shared with different people in different locations in a meaningful way. The anemometer is still made and used by meteorologists today.
Da Vinci is known to have created a lot whimsical sketches, some of them delving into realms of engineering that were hundreds of years in the future, such as his "Aerial Screw" Flying Machine (some people consider it a progenitor of the modern helicopter), many other of his inventions were designed to meet the needs of his always war hungry patrons. Yet many of his ideas were designed to meet the daily needs of himself, his students, and his fellow humans. The need to lift and move heavy objects, the need to tell the time of day, the need to cross a random stream, and the need to know how fast the wind was blowing; these are all ordinary, simple things, that no one really had an answer to in da Vinci’s day.
Rather than accepting things as they were, da Vinci answered these questions in the most efficient and direct way possible. While he may not have invented the phrase “Keep it simple”, it was a principle he practiced and it shows in his direct, elegant responses to regular, every day problems.
Da Vinci’s Machines & Robotics Exhibition is currently on display at Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Three dimensional wooden, metal, and cloth models of all of the designs mentioned in this blog are available for your enjoyment, many of which are “hands-on” and can be touched, turned, cranked or otherwise manipulated by you. Come and experience the simplicity and elegance of da Vinci at LVNHM through September 10, 2022.
All photos in this blog were taken by the author.