Leonardo – the man who wanted to know everything

Posted by jerry on October 25th, 2004 — Posted in History, Journal

What a wonderful documentary on Sunday night! Called: “Leonardo – the man who wanted to know everything” it is a two part documentary of an amazingly versatile bloke. One of my workmates said he must’ve been a sad man because so many of his wonderful ideas did not come to fruition in his lifetime. More than 400 years after his death a British team built and tested his design for an armoured vehicle, a parachutist tested his parachute for probably the first time, using Leonardo’s design to the letter, his underwater breathing apparatus was tested – successfully and so on.

I think there are probably three reasons why many of Leonardo’s designs remained untested in his lifetime:

Firstly, it is likely that like anyone with different ideas, he would have come up against conservatism “that thang’ll never fly Orville…” so there may well have been a marked reluctance to invest in blue sky research – an attitude that persists to this day. Small steps, and make sure they’re winners beats the big risk most times – even today.

Secondly, allied to the first – how do you convince people to fund, let alone actually try something really and genuinely new? Moreover, a new idea without a ready market will usually fail – not because of a design flaw, but because no-one can see the uses to which it might be put. Alexander Graham Bell allegedly designed the telephone as an aid for the hard of hearing rather than a communications device that would revolutionise the world.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly – Leonardo seemed more interested in the idea than its execution – he rarely finished anything – and even then it was under pressure and past the deadline. For a creative mind, it is surely enough just to have the idea and work out its solution – does it really need to be built to know instinctively you have modeled the right solution on paper?

So why did it take 400 years for his armoured vehicle to reach the prototype phase? Obvious really – he worked for the Florentine Defence Department – clearly the thing was:

a) rejected on principle because the finance advisor was a navy man
b) resubmitted in revised form as an inverted boat – then rejected because Florence was not a maritime power
c) redesigned by a committee to ensure the mechanism would be incompatible with the wheels
d) advertised for tender – in the Beaconsfield Herald and other regional newspapers
e) offered to the lowest tenderer
f) locked in a legal dispute between competing tenderers for the documentation phase
g) tender suspended for 20 years pending the outcome of a judicial inquiry into the dispute
h) subjected to construction delays because of cost over-runs and budget cut-backs
i) further delayed because a clerk had misfiled the plans – for 130 years
j) re-issued for tender
k) delayed because no-one had retained the technology to achieve the metallurgical specifications defined in the original tender documentation – no-one used wrought iron any more.
l) further delays because of a green ban on logging the old growth timber specified for the armor
m) held up pending a new white paper – the Sforza government had been supplanted by the Medicis
n) new design specification issued to allow for plantation timber and a greener technology
o) design released for tender
p) offered to the lowest tenderer
q) halted while inquiry held into whether a steam engine might be retro-fitted within the existing design
r) modified design released for tender – original lowest bidder had gone out of business.
s) offered to the lowest bidder
t) work halted over industrial dispute between boiler makers and carpenters on the same workplace
u) work continues (slowly) only after Industrial Relations Tribunal intervention
v) work suspended pending inquiry into construction delays
w) Inquiry finds the biggest delays to be caused by inquiries
x) work continues – s l o w l y (it’s a Defence contract – each rivet has to be hand made to the original tender’s specifications and approved by the Board before installation)
y) work halted by budget cutbacks owing to the size of the Florentine deficit
z) work resumes but there are systems integration problems due to incompatibility between mechanism and wheels…

However, the parachute worked first time exactly as Leonardo designed it to – and once the mechanism was sorted, the tank revealed itself to be a remarkably modern design.

Next week we get to see the glider and the underwater breathing apparatus – I’m looking forward to it!


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