Bruce Sterling on Design
Renaissance hacks by the
father of all geeks.
“I HAVE PLANS FOR BRID GES, VERY LIGHT
and strong … I have plans for destroying every fortress … and ships, which can resist the fire of all the
heaviest cannon … I can make armored cars….”
That’s Leonardo da Vinci, asking the Duke of Leonardo dissected bats and birds to design the wings
Milan for a job, ten years before Columbus discov- for his human-powered flying machines.
Leonardo got that job. He went to Milan to make hydrodynamics. Leonardo sketched tens of thou-huge bronze statues, giant cathedrals, enormous sands of fantasy machines, from ball bearings to
canals, secret tunnels, and a bristling host of giant, gigantic cranes, yet somehow, they always stay on
terrifying, remarkably sadistic war machines. one message: “Leonardo is amazing.” His notebooks
Leonardo had plenty of plans — volumes full of are an endless series of air-guitar solos in a world
them, plans stuffed in the margins of his plans. But that hasn’t yet invented orchestras.
Leonardo never shipped the products. He never Leonardo’s a one-man show. When Leonardo
made any of those things. envisions a super-cannon, it’s a multi-barreled blun-
In practice, Leonardo mostly made ingenious derbuss that one guy can use to destroy an army.
special effects for festival entertainments. His When he imagines an airplane, it’s one guy soaring
glamorous stage shows for dukes and kings were on batwings. His submarine is one guy secretly
the main reason these worthies kept him around. drowning an entire ship full of enemies. When his
Leonardo also painted masterpieces, but reluctant- giant war chariot chops a company of soldiers like
ly and not very many. Nowadays his paintings are wheat in a combine harvester, you just know that
what’s left to us to see. The royal festival entertain- the victims will be forced to wonder, “Who the heck
ments vanished like soap bubbles, as soon as his did this to us? He must be some kind a genius!”
amazed contemporaries stopped saying, “Wow!” A dredge is a machine for digging with a big
As for his glorious cities, super-machines, and scoop. Most of us would consider a dredge to be
giant canals ... some were possible, barely. But a very practical, roughneck, and muddy kind of
making them required an aggressive, full-scale machine. A Leonardo dredge is not just a big shovel
engineering outfit like General Dynamics or with pulleys. It’s a splendid altar to canal digging,
Halliburton, not a visionary wizard in a velvet hat. a showy, towering enterprise whose nifty gearings
The Renaissance couldn’t work that way, because must attract public attention for miles around.
no mere king or duke could give Leonardo a budget Canals are supposed to be handy waterways where
that size, or that many resources in men and materi- people can ship stuff in boats. Leonardo’s canals,
als. His ideas were glorious — too glorious to have extensively planned but never built, are Leonardo’s
a business model. personal adornments to the map of Italy, a kind of
“Wow” is the unifying theme that runs through environmental art installation.
the great man’s scatterbrained interests in anatomy, When Leonardo explores human anatomy, heal-human flight, submarines, mathematics, physics, and ing other people is the last thing on his mind. It’s
Model from a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci was donated to The Exhibition Alliance
by the IBM Corporation. The exhibition is circulated by The Exhibition Alliance Inc., Hamilton, NY.