The History of Leonardo da Vinci’s Automata

A digital reconstruction of the self-propelled cart of Leonardo. Attribution not found

The History of Leonardo da Vinci’s Automata

Leonardo's humanoid robot.
Leonardo’s humanoid robot.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automata: History

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, engineer, sculptor, scientist, and architect who embodied the High Renaissance. While known for his artwork, he also had a number of ingenious and unusual inventions.

The automata are several robotic devices that he wrote about. It isn’t clear whether he constructed any or all of them, though there are reports of them in operation during his time. No complete designs exist for any of them, making it difficult to know exactly how they operated. Here are the three most popular automata of Leonardo da Vinci:

Quick Facts

C. 15th and 16th century, possibly between 1478, 1495, and 1515
Leonardo da Vinci
Original Use
Entertainment, gift to the King of France
  • Mechanical lion
  • Self-propelled cart
  • Mechanical knight

Mechanical Lion

There are stories that Leonardo made a mechanical lion with a wonderful artifice and was able to walk forward and present flowers at the end of its performance. It reportedly opened its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies for the King of France. It is said that this machine was presented to King Francis I as an amusement or as a diplomatic gesture during a banquet hosted by Florentine merchants and Giuliano de’ Medici in Lyon in honor of Francis I on July 12th, 1515. Because the lion is the symbol of Florence and lilies are the fleurs-de-lis of France, this was a very symbolic automaton.

The mechanical lion perhaps was presented also during the peace talks between the French king and Pope Leo X in Bologna on December 19th, 1515. Later, Leonardo took the lion when he moved to Château du Clos Lucé in France and the device was demonstrated and caused a great stir at the festival organized at Argentan in 1517.

Self-Propelled Cart

The original drawing of Leonardo’s self-propelled cart.
Leonardo Da Vinci invented a self-propelled cart.

One of the biggest collections of Leonardo’s manuscripts, the famous Codex Atlanticus,  describes a mechanism often called the self-propelled cart of Leonardo. The design was likely created between 1478 and 1480 when the young Leonardo was still in Florence.

This famous drawing of Leonardo is a complex model of an automaton. It seems that the cart was devised for use in theatrical settings, an area of particular interest to Leonardo.

Mechanical Knight

Both the Codex Atlanticus and Codex Madrid mention a mechanical knight. It was clad in a typical German-Italian suit of armor of the late 15th century and was capable of some human-like movements. The first believed demonstration of this machine was in Milano in 1495.

It was designed to sit up, wave its arms, move its head, and open and close its anatomically correct jaw. It may have even made sounds to the accompaniment of automated drums, as there appear to be drawings of an automatic drum-roll in the automaton drawing.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automata: How They Worked

Another digital model of the self-propelled cart of Leonardo.
Another digital model of the self-propelled cart of Leonardo.

All of the automata relied on similar mechanics. They used pulleys, cables, and gears to perform basic movements. Pegs and blocks were used to program movements, so the automata could in theory move without an operator and could be given different programs for different tasks.

Mechanical Lion: How It Worked

The exact design of the mechanical lion is unknown. The drawings show a complex series of pulleys and ropes to help the lion move about and eventually open its chest area, originally used to display a bouquet of lilies.

Based on the surviving sketches of the mechanical lion, the Italian Cultural Institute in Paris reconstructed this 16th-century robot for research and display purposes. The reconstruction of the lion was approximately six feet, seven inches tall, and 10 feet long.

Self-Propelled Cart: How It Worked

A digital reconstruction of the self-propelled cart of Leonardo.
A digital reconstruction of the self-propelled cart of Leonardo.

Like other automata, many specific features of the self-propelled cart are unknown. It was believed to be programmed and wound up by the mainsprings, which were spiral springs under the horizontal cogwheels. Lower wheels and a unique crossbow system helped power the cart as well.

Leonardo da Vinci designed the cart with programmable pegs and blocks. These features allowed the cart to move in a predetermined path on its own, including stopping with a handbrake that didn’t require a human to operate it.

Mechanical Knight: How It Worked

There are many drawings of the robotic knight machine but any modern recreation of this automaton is also based partially on speculation. It appears to have been constructed using two independent systems:

  • Legs, ankles, knees, and hips system
  • Articulated shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands system

These systems had three and four degrees of freedom, respectively. The arms appear to have been powered by a programmable controller, while the legs were powered by an external crank and cable.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automata: Historical Significance

Illustration of Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, engineer, sculptor, scientist, and architect.

Despite the fact that complete drawings don’t remain of any of these automata, they still represent significant historical accomplishments. They are widely regarded as the first robot and the first robotic vehicle. The automata also played a part in inspiring modern-day robotics. NASA robotics expert Mark Rosheim credited da Vinci’s work in the field as one of his inspirations for the Mars Exploration Rovers.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When were the Automata invented?

The exact dates that the automata of Leonardo da Vinci were invented are unknown. The self-propelled cart may have been invented between 1478 and 1480. The mechanical knight is believed to have been invented in 1495 and the mechanical lion in 1515.

What were the Automata?

The automata were robotic inventions designed by Leonard da Vinci sometime in the 15th and 16th centuries. They are the first known robots and robotic vehicles.

How do the Automata work?

No complete drawing or original automata exist. They were believed to be powered by cables, ropes, gears, pulleys, and other basic mechanical means.

How did Leonardo da Vinci invent the Automata?

Leonardo da Vinci was a High Renaissance inventor, engineer, painter, and architect. He combined his knowledge of various areas to draw and describe complex robotic mechanisms. It’s not known whether all the automata were ever created by da Vinci.

When did Leonardo da Vinci invent the Automata?

The self-propelled cart appears to be one of the first automata invented, which Leonardo da Vinci may have designed between 1478 and 1480. The mechanical knight appears to have been next, sometime around 1495. Finally, the mechanical lion is believed to have been presented to the King of France in 1515.

Are the Automata still used?

While none of Leonardo da Vinci’s creations are still in use, his theories and designs have inspired the field of robotics in numerous ways. The Mars Exploration Rovers designs were inspired by his work.

How did da Vinci’s robot work?

The automata of Leonardo da Vinci used gears, pulleys, ropes, cables, and pegs to move in pre-programmed ways. It’s believed they were designed primarily as entertainment for the King of France and other officials.

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