Thoughts on Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds

Yesterday I took the day off and went downtown to have a look at the Air & Space Museum’s exhibition Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds.

What can I say? The Codex kind of puts your life in a harsh perspective.

On the surface, the Codex is nothing special. It’s about 8 inches by 5 inches and is, essentially, the kind of notebook a person would carry around like we carry our phones. The pages are twice-used scraps of paper and in some places you can see notes and sketches that have been scraped out underneath the text. It’s the kind of thing a person would make notes in and then toss into a drawer and forget about.

The contents, however, are enough to break your head. Reading through it I saw the description of a principle of gravity 175 years before Newton, a principle of pressure 225 years before Bernoulli, and a perfectly serviceable design for an airfoil perfectly capable of producing lift 500 years before Lilienthal & Cayley.  In addition, da Vinci had documented models for human-powered ornithopters based on the mechanics of bird flight, a helicopter based on (by my observation) something similar to an Archimedes’ screw, and finally a hang glider that reduces the flight characteristics of bird to the essential components of lift and stabilization that the pilot controls by altering the center of gravity by leaning left or right. In other words, in 18 pages Leonardo da Vinci invented aerospace engineering 500 or so years before the science or technology to do anything about it existed. Deal with that for a second.

What’s more, he made these notes and observations around the same time he was painting the Mona Lisa.

So, here’s the scene. Leo’s in his studio, the easel’s set up, and Lisa’s sitting for him. After a couple of hours he says, “Alright sweetheart, take a break.” Gets up, stretches, and steps outside for a smoke (because you just know he was a 2-pack a day kind of guy). While he’s leaning in the doorway staring at the countryside he sees some birds fly by and says, “Huh.” Takes out his notebook, invents a new branch of science, and then stubs out his smoke and goes back inside to finish painting a masterpiece.

Right. What’d you do yesterday? That’s a harsh perspective.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds is currently on Exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the National Mall until October 22, 2013.