A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter III
Medieval science in the West
Leonardo da Vinci
The relative infertility of Bacon's thought is shown by the fact that he founded no school and left no trace of discipleship. The entire century after his death shows no single European name that need claim the attention of the historian of science. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, however, there is evidence of a renaissance of science no less than of art. The German Muller became famous under the latinized named of Regio Montanus (1437-1472), although his actual scientific attainments would appear to have been important only in comparison with the utter ignorance of his contemporaries. The most distinguished worker of the new era was the famous Italian Leonardo da Vinci - a man who has been called by Hamerton the most universal genius that ever lived. Leonardo's position in the history of art is known to every one. With that, of course, we have no present concern; but it is worth our while to inquire at some length as to the famous painter's accomplishments as a scientist.

From a passage in the works of Leonardo, first brought to light by Venturi,[1] it would seem that the great painter anticipated Copernicus in determining the movement of the earth. He made mathematical calculations to prove this, and appears to have reached the definite conclusion that the earth does move - or what amounts to the same thing, that the sun does not move. Muntz is authority for the statement that in one of his writings he declares, "Il sole non si mouve" - the sun does not move.[2]

Among his inventions is a dynamometer for determining the traction power of machines and animals, and his experiments with steam have led some of his enthusiastic partisans to claim for him priority to Watt in the invention of the steam-engine. In these experiments, however, Leonardo seems to have advanced little beyond Hero of Alexandria and his steam toy. Hero's steam-engine did nothing but rotate itself by virtue of escaping jets of steam forced from the bent tubes, while Leonardo's "steam-engine" "drove a ball weighing one talent over a distance of six stadia." In a manuscript now in the library of the Institut de France, Da Vinci describes this engine minutely. The action of this machine was due to the sudden conversion of small quantities of water into steam ("smoke," as he called it) by coming suddenly in contact with a heated surface in a proper receptacle, the rapidly formed steam acting as a propulsive force after the manner of an explosive. It is really a steam-gun, rather than a steam-engine, and it is not unlikely that the study of the action of gunpowder may have suggested it to Leonardo.

It is believed that Leonardo is the true discoverer of the camera-obscura, although the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Porta, who was not born until some twenty years after the death of Leonardo, is usually credited with first describing this device. There is little doubt, however, that Da Vinci understood the principle of this mechanism, for he describes how such a camera can be made by cutting a small, round hole through the shutter of a darkened room, the reversed image of objects outside being shown on the opposite wall.

Like other philosophers in all ages, he had observed a great number of facts which he was unable to explain correctly. But such accumulations of scientific observations are always interesting, as showing how many centuries of observation frequently precede correct explanation. He observed many facts about sounds, among others that blows struck upon a bell produced sympathetic sounds in a bell of the same kind; and that striking the string of a lute produced vibration in corresponding strings of lutes strung to the same pitch. He knew, also, that sounds could be heard at a distance at sea by listening at one end of a tube, the other end of which was placed in the water; and that the same expedient worked successfully on land, the end of the tube being placed against the ground.

The knowledge of this great number of unexplained facts is often interpreted by the admirers of Da Vinci, as showing an almost occult insight into science many centuries in advance of his time. Such interpretations, however, are illusive. The observation, for example, that a tube placed against the ground enables one to hear movements on the earth at a distance, is not in itself evidence of anything more than acute scientific observation, as a similar method is in use among almost every race of savages, notably the American Indians. On the other hand, one is inclined to give credence to almost any story of the breadth of knowledge of the man who came so near anticipating Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin in his interpretation of the geological records as he found them written on the rocks.

It is in this field of geology that Leonardo is entitled to the greatest admiration by modern scientists. He had observed the deposit of fossil shells in various strata of rocks, even on the tops of mountains, and he rejected once for all the theory that they had been deposited there by the Deluge. He rightly interpreted their presence as evidence that they had once been deposited at the bottom of the sea. This process he assumed bad taken hundreds and thousands of centuries, thus tacitly rejecting the biblical tradition as to the date of the creation.

Notwithstanding the obvious interest that attaches to the investigations of Leonardo, it must be admitted that his work in science remained almost as infertile as that of his great precursor, Bacon. The really stimulative work of this generation was done by a man of affairs, who knew little of theoretical science except in one line, but who pursued that one practical line until he achieved a wonderful result. This man was Christopher Columbus. It is not necessary here to tell the trite story of his accomplishment. Suffice it that his practical demonstration of the rotundity of the earth is regarded by most modern writers as marking an epoch in history. With the year of his voyage the epoch of the Middle Ages is usually regarded as coming to an end. It must not be supposed that any very sudden change came over the aspect of scholarship of the time, but the preliminaries of great things had been achieved, and when Columbus made his famous voyage in 1492, the man was already alive who was to bring forward the first great vitalizing thought in the field of pure science that the Western world had originated for more than a thousand years. This man bore the name of Kopernik, or in its familiar Anglicized form, Copernicus. His life work and that of his disciples will claim our attention in the succeeding chapter.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.