Many people know Leonardo da Vinci for his painting, drawings and sculptures, particularly his most famous painting the Mona Lisa, which currently hangs in the Louvre. What many people do not know is that da Vinci was really the original Renaissance Man. In addition to his skills as an artist, he was also a scientist, a mathematician, and an accomplished singer. Da Vinci also worked as an engineer and an inventor. Some of his inventions include hydraulic pumps, musical instruments, reversible crank mechanisms, and finned ,mortar shells. Alessandro Vezzosi, directory of the Leonardo da Vinci Musuem in Vinci, later found da Vinci’s notes and proved that the artist, scientist, singer, and inventor also discovered natural plastics.
Da Vinci experimented with organic, non-toxic ingredients to create materials that would not cause harm to others. In the case of his natural plastic, he used organic fibers, vegetable glues, and animal glues to hold the material together. Da Vinci added color to the natural plastic by using wrinkled cabbage leaves, lettuce, and the stomachs of oxen and heifers. Vezzosi tried the experiment detailed in da Vinci’s notes, mixing the colors with animal or vegetable glues. He then painted the resulting material with many layers. Once it dried, the result was a material similar to a plastic from the early 20th century known as Bakelite.
Bakelite was an early plastic developed by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist. The resin formed when phenol reacted with formaldehyde. This plastic was very useful in producing electrical insulators, radio casings, television casings, jewelry, kitchenware, and toys, as it was heat-resistant and nonconductive. Resins made with phenols are not used as often today because it is difficult and costly to produce them. There are also some health concerns associated with the use of phenols. However, some companies still use this type of resin to make saucepan handles, electrical switches, and disc brake cylinders, as it stands up to heat very well. Vezzosi’s recreation of da Vinci’s experiment proved that the Italian Renaissance artist and inventor was the first person to develop man-made plastic, ahead of Leo Baekeland, and Alexander Parkes who developed Parkesine, a natural material made from cellulose.
Although it has not been determined conclusively, how da Vinci used plastic in his inventions, several of his inventions may have contained this type of natural resin. Da Vinci designed a rudimentary wooden submarine with a submersible cleaver, which would have been useful in fighting the city-states of Genoa and Venice. He intended to build the submarine out of wood, but some of the components could have been reinforced with natural plastic. Da Vinci also designed an early form of the robot, which combined mechanical workings with the form of the human body. He may have had natural plastic in mind for holding the components of the robot together.
Many of da Vinci’s designs were developed with warfare in mind. His scythed chariot design is one of the most interesting, as it blended practical transportation with defensive weapons. Because his natural plastic could be rendered unbreakable if coated properly, da Vinci may have planned to use resin to coat the scythes and other parts of the chariot. The chariot would have been an ideal replacement for armies on horses, as the horses spooked easily and were difficult to control during battle. Da Vinci was even ahead of his time when it came to experimenting with solar power. He designed a solar laser, which could harm enemies during battle without producing smoke to give away the shooter’s location. In addition to these inventions, da Vinci may have also used natural plastics in his flying machine designs.
Not only did da Vinci change history with his inventions, he also inspired other inventors and designers. His original work with natural plastics paved the way for others to invent new resins and materials. When Baekeland discovered Bakelite, he did so by experimenting with formaldehyde and carbolic acid. The invention of Parkesine involved the use of photographic celluloid, which would turn into a firm, flexible material if prepared properly.
Da Vinci’s work with plastic and other inventions gave these engineers the confidence to try new experiments, even if others did not encourage them or support their success. It is also important to note that not all of da Vinci’s inventions were immediately successful. In some cases, it took decades before people realized that his inventions were useful and applicable to real-world situations. Several of his failed ideas never got past the design stage. Because other inventors saw that da Vinci’s work was not always accepted right away, they were willing to put in the long hours required to make new discoveries without expecting immediate recognition for their work. This influence is just part of Leonardo da Vinci’s lasting legacy.