Robots of Yesteryear – Leonardo’s Knight
In the 1950s, a team of scholars at the University of California were poring over a number of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, specifically the Codices Atlanticus and Madrid. A number of particularly puzzling schematics were analyzed more closely and slowly pieced together – the result was astonishing. The plans outlined one of the first robots in the history of the world: a life-size mechanical knight a inside 15th century German suit of armor.
Thanks to a deceptively simple series of pullies, ropes, and gears, Leonardo’s Knight could sit and stand, lift its own visor, and move its arms. It was stiff, sure, but you try moving gracefully in 15th century armor!
While Leonardo’s knight might not have been capable of very much, it was certainly a fascinating party trick in the 15th century. And that appears to be exactly what it was used for! The knight itself appears to have been assembled and displayed for the first time at a ceremony held by the Prince of Milan, Ludovico Sforza in 1495. It doesn’t appear to have made another appearance.
Beyond this, we don’t really know what purpose the robot served or where else he might have been employed. In all likelihood he was never more than a party trick – but one that is still puzzling researchers today.
Leonardo clearly did not plan to have his robot reproduced from his schematics, as they were very haphazardly organized. Every component of the robot was individually drawn and out of context. This is one of the reasons that it took so long to discover. To make matters worse, intermingled among the drawings are a number of schematics and doodles for pieces that having nothing at all to do with the robot.
As for their construction, the interior parts of the robot were built out of wood, leather, and a couple of metal parts. Actions and movements were performed through a sophisticated series of pullies and ropes, and the legs were operated through a series of cranks behind the knight.
The exterior was a suit of late-15th century German armor.
The rediscovery continues
The interpretation and reconstruction of the robot is very much a work in progress. For example, before 2007 most reconstructed plans included a mechanical device in the belly of the knight. It was later determined that this device had nothing to do with the knight at all – it was actually part of a clock!
Likewise, in 2007 an Italian researcher, Mario Taddei, identified drawings on three more pages of the Codex Atlanticus as likely to belong to the knight. How exactly they fit in, however, has yet to be determined.
In one attempt to solve this problem, all mechanical sketches on the aforementioned pages were manufactured at the Leonardo3 laboratory, and a number were determined to definitely not belong to the robot.
It might be best to think of Leonardo’s Knight as something that we have been in the process of rediscovering since the 1950s.
Despite the lack of complete plans, a number of attempts to reconstruct the robot have been made since their rediscovery in the 1950s.
The first real attempt to rebuild the knight was undertaken by American robotician Mark Rosheim in 1996. This was the first practical demonstration that the knight actually worked as planned. Not only that, it appears to follow the laws of proportions and kinetics laid out in Leaonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
As more has been discovered newer, more “faithful” interpretations of Leonardo’s knight have been built.
Leonardo’s other autonomous projects
According to a number of contemporaries and later biographers, this is not the only robot that Leonardo designed. One particularly common rumor is that he developed and at least partially built a robot in the form of a lion. This lion was allegedly presented to the King of France, François Ier in 1515. What he did with it, provided it ever existed, is anybody’s guess.
So far, there is no direct evidence of its existence. Then again, his knight was only rediscovered in the 1950s… so who knows what else is hidden in those notes!