The Da Vinci Mode

Article excerpt

The Da Vinci Mode A new book suggests the world's most famous Renaissance man pioneered robotic technology. BY ROBIN TATU LEONARDO'S LOST ROBOTS By Mark Elling Rosheim Springer 2006, 184 pp.

DAN BROWN'S "The Da Vinci Code" opens with a gripping visual mystery: a corpse lying spread-eagle in grim reenactment of a famous Leonardo da Vinci drawing. If you don't know why, then you are not among the millions who have seen the film or read the bestselling thriller. Leonardo's iconic "Vitruvian Man" also graces the cover of Mark Elling Rosheim's latest book-only this time it is a robot measured within the geometric proportions of the circle and square.

In "Leonardo's Lost Robots," Rosheim is on the trail of another intriguing da Vinci mystery: Did the renowned Renaissance painter, inventor, engineer and architect design some of the world's earliest robots? And did he translate his designs into functioning machines? Rosheim seeks to answer these questions through an exhaustive study of Leonardo's technical drawings, part of a corpus of 7,000 sketches dispersed in collections around the world. He situates this study in an examination of the work of Leonardo and his teachers and students and by exploring the late 15th-century fascination with all things mechanical. Rosheim then goes a step further by reconstructing three Leonardo models. In doing so, he hopes to demonstrate that the quintessential Renaissance man was indeed at the forefront of robotic technology.

Leonardo da Vinci's technical drawings have long intrigued scholars. Elegant but fragmentary sketches suggest designs for a flying machine, a diver's underwater suit and even a proto-automobile. Yet only in recent decades have certain sketches been identified as "automata"-the Renaissance term for programmable mechanical devices. Indeed, it is Carlo Pedretti, who in 1957 pieced together plans for a robotic knight, to whom Rosheim pays tribute throughout "Leonardo's Lost Robots." With the encouragement of this Italian scholar, Rosheim builds upon Pedretti's work and that of other historians and art historians, and he does so from a technical angle. As a graduate of the University of Minnesota's mechanical engineering department and head of his own robotic company, Rosheim is, as Pedretti writes in the introduction, "in the privileged position of turning to his fellow engineers of the past. …