Confucius said that everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci not only saw it, he embraced it, took inspiration from it, and went on to establish himself as one of the greatest painters ever to have lived and one of the most talented and ingenious thinkers the world has ever known. The ultimate “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo da Vinci maintained that nothing mankind could ever create would compete with the elegance, beauty, economy, or functionality of any of Mother Nature’s inventions, and as such he was also one of the great innovators in biomimicry. He had the deepest respect for nature and for life, and it was his bio-inspired approach to innovation that sowed the seeds for the first ideas of flying machines, artificial wings, submarines, and a raft of other inventions.
The term “biomimicry” was popularized by scientist, author, and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute Janine Benyus in her 1997 book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” The Biomimicry Institute defines the discipline as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Biomimicry (also biomimetics) is both a science and an art, and indeed da Vinci was a visionary who saw the two as indivisible. It aims to take nature’s best ideas and use them to solve the many sustainability problems caused by humans. The thinking is that nature—animals, plants, and microbes—has already spent billions of years working out solutions to many of the problems we are facing today, so why not tap into nature’s “engineering” expertise?
Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”
Leonardo da Vinci
A champion of biomimicry
Though there was no term for it in the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci was most definitely a champion of biomimicry and found inspiration in nature from an early age. Born out of wedlock in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, Leonardo received no formal education whatsoever, and aged 15 he was apprenticed to Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, which turned out to be an inspired move. It was his mentor who encouraged him to take cues from nature. The artist taught the young Leonardo to build images from the inside out when painting or sculpting the human form, and during his lifetime da Vinci would dissect about 30 corpses in the pursuit of perfecting his art.
Da Vinci’s passion for perfect form can be seen in his many anatomical drawings, including the renowned “Vitruvian Man,” which not only demonstrates Leonardo’s absolute understanding of proportion, it also blends mathematics with art, and this is precisely what Leonardo was all about. Physicist, teacher, and writer Bulent Atalay said in a talk at NASA’s Langley Research Center: “No self-respecting artist goes around counting tree branches, but Leonardo did. He was a scientist doing art. It was always the patterns he was after. Proportions, patterns, the mathematics behind it.”
- … that da Vinci designed the first humanoid robot. His “Robotic Knight” was effectively a suit operated through an elaborate system of gears, wheels, pulleys, and cables.
- … that da Vinci sketched out the first ideas for contact lenses. He believed that a person’s vision could be improved by wearing water-filled lenses over the eye.
- … that da Vinci was the first to describe coronary artery disease and the first to describe the heart as a muscle.
- … that the first recorded use of sonar was by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490. He inserted a tube into water to detect vessels by ear.
- … that although da Vinci hated war, he came up with inventions for a great many machines of war, including the armored tank, a water-powered machine for manufacturing cannon barrels, a giant crossbow, a triple barrel canon, and a series of revolving and mobile bridges to allow armies to advance over bodies of water.
- … that da Vinci’s well documented fascination with water also led him to design scuba gear. While working in Venice, da Vinci designed his scuba gear for surprise attacks on enemy ships from underwater. A bag-like mask covered the diver’s head, with air supplied from a diving bell on the surface via two cane tubes.
Nature’s secret code
Many of Leonardo’s works are said to illustrate the “golden ratio”—a mathematical principle repeated in natural models, from flower petals, seed heads, and tree branches to shells, spiral galaxies, and DNA molecules. The golden ratio was used by many Renaissance artists to achieve balance and beauty, and da Vinci applied it to the proportions in his “Last Supper” and used it in perhaps his best-known work of art, the “Mona Lisa.” The golden ratio ties in closely with mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci’s “Fibonacci sequence,” which dates back to around 1200—and which has become one of the most famous mathematical formulas, where each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. The sequence has been called “nature’s secret code” and also governs the dimensions of many icons of architecture such as the Great Pyramid at Giza and the Parthenon in Athens.
Atalay also suggested that NASA scientists and engineers would benefit from taking a leaf out of Leonardo’s book. “I think to optimize creativity, you have to bring together expertise in different fields,” he said. “Obviously, Leonardo is the ultimate scientist-artist-inventor-mathematician … following Leonardo’s lead will not make any of us other Leonardos. But there are things to learn from his example. You should always take notes. You should sketch. Even if you renounce your artistic ability, try to sketch, and you will develop it. You will remember things much better.”
The question is, how do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?
Co-founder Biomimicry Institute
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
In the hope of enabling human flight, Leonardo da Vinci closely observed the anatomy and flight of birds and applied biophilic design principles to come up with various sketches of flying machines—in da Vinci’s case a flapping ornithopter, where the pilot would spin cranks with his hands and feet so that the wings of the machine would flap. Da Vinci was such a visionary that his research into flight would never produce any working flying machines during his own lifetime, but his ideas would later inspire the Wright Brothers, who, incidentally, also closely observed the flight of pigeons. The Wright Brothers designed, built, and flew their first aircraft in 1903.
Da Vinci based his designs for the aerial screw, which was considered the first model of a helicopter, and a parachute—a necessity if humans were to fly—on observations of seed pods and flowers falling from trees. His theory for the aerial screw was based on the use of manpower to rotate the screw fast enough to create a spiral of air beneath the blades, lifting the structure off the ground, while the canopy in his design for the parachute was triangular rather than rounded. The first person to actually test da Vinci’s parachute was Adrian Nichols in 2000, and his prototype proved a success and testimony to da Vinci’s genius.
The Fibonacci sequence, credited to Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, is a formula where each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. The mathematical equation is
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2
The sequence reflects various patterns found in nature, and as such is also known as “nature’s universal rule.” These are a few of the most remarkable examples:
Many shells, including snail shells and nautilus shells, follow the progressive proportional increase of the Fibonacci sequence.
The way tree branches grow out of the tree and each other is an example of the Fibonacci sequence.
The seeds of a flower—sunflowers are a good example—are often produced at the center and migrate outward.
The seed pods spiral upward in opposite directions. The number of steps the spirals take tend to match Fibonacci numbers.
Flower petals and leaves:
Petals unfold more and more as the Fibonacci sequence increases, and the leaves of a plant are arranged so that the maximum number can spiral around the stem before a new leaf grows directly above it, ensuring that each leaf receives the optimum amount of sunlight and catches as much rain as possible.
A DNA molecule measures 34 angstroms by 21 angstroms at each full cycle of the double helix spiral, and in the Fibonacci series 34 follows 21.
The power of water
The records of the Florentine government name Leonardo da Vinci a “Master of Water.” He was fascinated by water, which he famously described as “vetturale di natura”—the vehicle of nature. He believed that water was to the world what blood is to the human body, and indeed his descriptions of cities were anatomical, with water flowing through arteries. While obsessed with water, he also lived in fear of its destructive power, having witnessed disasters such as the Arno river breaking its banks on two occasions. To the end of his days he was haunted by visions of great deluges destroying the earth.
Da Vinci observed the motion of water, the ebb and flow of tides, and was the first to advance the theory of erosion. He said: “Water gnaws at mountains and fills valleys. If it could, it would reduce the earth to a perfect sphere.” Perhaps as a consequence, da Vinci worked on the development of devices that could be used to control and divert water, also designing locks and canal systems. The relationship between water and energy also inspired Leonardo to develop ideas on the use of water to drive sawmills, forges, flour mills, factories, and silk-spinning works.
Master of every discipline
Clearly Leonardo da Vinci was a jack of all trades, yet one who mastered every discipline to which he turned his hand. It’s an impressive list: artist, anatomist, architect, paleontologist, botanist, scientist, writer, sculptor, philosopher, engineer, inventor, musician, poet, and more. He understood the power of nature to inspire, and was attuned to issues of sustainability. Indeed da Vinci was so far ahead of his time that he feared for the earth’s forests as humanity continued to search for fuel, devising a system that would harness the solar power of the sun using concave mirrors to heat water for Renaissance Florence. Da Vinci also accurately described the hydrological cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, and even today we can use this cycle to help us understand the science behind climate change.
According to Vienna-born physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, although Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific discoveries have all been “re-discovered,” we cannot fail to marvel at his genius and how he made all of these discoveries so early. We can take inspiration from da Vinci in many ways, says Capra: “His systemic way of thinking, of interconnecting problems, and seeing how things are connected. His profound respect of nature and his desire to imitate nature and learn from Her, in biomimicry, in eco-design. His science always went together with ethics. Animals to him were, ontologically, completely equivalent to humans, at the same level. He was a vegetarian and had a very deep respect of life.” A thinker with boundless imagination and creativity, Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas continue to influence art and science to this day; so inventive was he that a great many of his groundbreaking inventions were not—and, technologically, could not have been—realized until hundreds of years after the death of one of history’s greatest pioneers.