Leonardo's fascination with machines probably began during his boyhood. Some of his earliest sketches clearly show how various machine parts worked. As an apprentice in the studio of the artist Verrocchio, Leonardo observed and used a variety of machines. By studying them he gained practical knowledge about their design and structure.
Many ancient machines were in common use in Leonardo's time. For example, water wheels turned millstones to grind grain and Archimedes' screws lifted water from streams providing a ready supply for drinking and washing.
Artists and craftsmen in Leonardo's time knew how to build and repair the familiar kinds of machines. The idea of inventing new kinds of machines, however, would not have occurred to them.
Leonardo developed a unique new attitude about machines. He reasoned that by understanding how each separate machine part worked, he could modify them and combine them in different ways to improve existing machines or create inventions no one had ever seen before.
Leonardo set out to write the first systematic explanations of how machines work and how the elements of machines can be combined.
His tremendous talents as a illustrator allowed him to draw his mechanical ideas with exceptional clarity. Five hundred years after they were put on paper, many of his sketches can easily be used as blueprints to create perfect working models.
Visions of the Future
Inventor's Toolbox: The Elements of Machines
Classroom Activity: Sketching Gadget Anatomy
Leonardo's Mysterious Machinery
Classroom Activity: Be Inventive!