Leonardo Da Vinci is a name that conjures up all sorts of images. He was an artist and a scientist, and even now he is renowned as having been way ahead of his time. Furthermore, researchers are still discovering incredible things about Da Vinci’s life and work – and this latest discovery might just trump them all.
In a tiny notebook, researchers have found an amazing piece of work. It shows that Da Vinci understood something fundamental centuries before anyone else. However, there was a time when a drawing on the same page was considered far more important. It depicts an old woman and features the inscription, in Italian, “Mortal beauty passes and does not last.”
The notebook is held at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – an esteemed focal point for debate of any kind. Discussion about the page in question had previously revolved around the drawing of the woman. Art historians believed that it could be a picture of Helen of Troy. And as a result, no one paid that much attention to the other contents which the page contained.
For years, the red scribbles below the drawing had been passed off as inconsequential. They were, researchers believed, nothing more than idle doodles. However, a recent study by a professor from the University of Cambridge has revealed that the supposedly meaningless markings are actually of enormous significance.
It was Ian Hutchings, Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at Cambridge University, who took a closer look at the markings on the page. For even though a museum director in the 1920s had claimed that they were “irrelevant notes and diagrams in red chalk,” Hutchings thought there might be something more to them – and it seems he was right.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a polymath. Indeed, he turned his hand not just to painting, but to a wide range of subjects, including invention, architecture, sculpture, cartography and astronomy. Born in 1452, he passed away in 1519 at the age of 67, and by the time of his death he’d produced around 13,000 pages of notes.
And while many of us know him best for his works of art such as the Mona Lisa, these thousands of pages of scientific observations show another important side to the man. Moreover, it was among these pages that Hutchings found this new discovery. The item in question was almost a side note, but it turned out to be the first written example of one of Da Vinci’s most elusive discoveries.
It has long been known that Da Vinci had a fundamental understanding of friction well before anyone else. However, researchers had never been able to create an accurate chronology of the development of his ideas. That was, until Hutchings took a closer look at the red chalk marks in the notebook.
While studying the tiny notebook page, which is just over 3.5 inches by 2.5 inches in size, Hutchins made an incredible find. Indeed, what had been dismissed as meaningless doodles were actually something far more intriguing. They turned out to be Da Vinci’s first work on his theories about friction.
These notes are made up of two different parts. Firstly, there’s some writing. This is written in Da Vinci’s traditional way, meaning that it’s mirrored, moving from right to left across the page. Indeed, almost all of his notebooks are written in this way. Perhaps more important, however, is the drawing next to these words.
Hutchings realized that the drawing wasn’t a doodle. Rather, he claims, it is a representation of an experiment that students today still conduct in order to demonstrate the effects of friction. The markings indicate that Da Vinci understood these principles in 1493, when the notebook was written – and that’s incredibly exciting.
The drawing, according to Hutchings, shows a row of blocks that are being moved by a weight on a pulley. And combined with the writings that surround the image, they show that Da Vinci was working at a very sophisticated level of understanding. So advanced, it seems, that he was two centuries ahead of the rest of the world.
Our understanding of the laws of friction, which is now called tribology, is credited to a French scientist called Guillaume Amontons. However, his discoveries came two hundred years after Da Vinci. And although the Italian’s work didn’t influence the Frenchman, that doesn’t make it any less incredible.
In fact, if anything, this makes it even more impressive. Hutchings’ research appears to show that not only did Da Vinci spend 20 years looking into the science of friction, but that he was also two centuries ahead of the rest of the world. So tribology is yet another field in which Da Vinci was a pioneer.
You see, Hutchings argues, the workings on the notebook page are basically Da Vinci’s “eureka” moment. They’re the foundation of two decades of work into how friction changes the way that mechanisms work. The complex machines that Da Vinci subsequently designed were, it seems, all influenced by this scrap of writing that many had thought was of no consequence.
The red scribbles appear to show that Da Vinci had already figured out various aspects of tribology. These include the fact that the amount of friction between two objects depends on the load that presses them together, and that the area of contact between the two objects has no role to play in the friction between them.
It’s highly likely that these ideas were based on experiments performed by Da Vinci. As his inventions became more complex, he understood that friction played a part in diminishing the efficacy of various machines. From wheels to pulleys and axles to screws, the application of Da Vinci’s work was heavily influenced by this incredible discovery.
Yet the discoveries that Professor Hutchings has made seem to show that Da Vinci had an even stronger understanding of friction than scientists had previously thought. This was a man who isn’t just one of the greatest artists who has ever lived. He was also destined to be one of the forerunners of an important field in modern science.
All of this just goes to prove that there may be even more to Leonardo Da Vinci than had previously been believed. Indeed, in what many had deemed to be a throwaway remark, Hutchings discovered a hugely important theory – and that poses an interesting question.
Namely, what else remains to be discovered in the thousands of pages of notes that Da Vinci left behind? If a doodle can explain a fundamental theory of physics, who knows what other issues Da Vinci may have figured out? It just goes to show that even works that have been studied as closely as Da Vinci’s could still hold secrets that are waiting to be uncovered.