by Dana Crisson
Tim Ritchie, President of the McWane Science Center, calls me a “da Vinci.” That means I am part of a group of educators who have been specially trained to guide visitors through the new Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, “Machines in Motion." But I look at it another way: I help visitors take a peek into the fascinating mind of the most famous Renaissance man in history.
We have 40 of da Vinci’s machines to play with, from a basic rolling mill used to shape metal to an elaborate hydraulic saw. My favorites? One would have to be da Vinci’s robot, an early predecessor of C3P0 from Star Wars. I love to watch families walk by the robot and jump when the 6-foot-tall metal man suddenly bends forward at the waist, politely bowing as if to say, “Nice to meet you.” Stand in front of the robot a moment longer and he will open his breastplate to give you a peek at his gears. According to da Vinci’s drawings, he designed his armored man to also open and close his jaw, wave his arms and move its head. The McWane robot is powered by motion sensors, but da Vinci most likely planned to power his early robot using water and weights.
I also like his olive press, built to address one of Italy’s most important traditions: making olive oil. He used a large horse-powered lever to turn an axel, gear wheel, and worm screw attached to a cylinder downward, which would eventually squeeze the oil from a bag of olives. Focaccia bread, anyone?
Everyone knows da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, but very few people know that he also invented the first revolving stage. He is credited with designing the ball bearing, and he used it to build a revolving stage for a theater production at the court of Milan. Today ball bearings are found in everything from skateboards to computer hard drives, but 500 years ago one of their original applications was for entertainment. So the next time you buy theater tickets to see Hairspray or Wicked, remember that you have Leonardo to thank for early advances in set decoration.
He missed the mark with his webbed glove invention, however. After studying the way ducks swam in the water, he made a webbed swim fin made of leather—but he designed it for hands, not feet!
There are dozens of other machines in the exhibit, including an elaborate flying contraption called an ornithopter, outfitted with heavy mechanical wings designed to allow man to fly. That one didn’t work, either, but even when his inventions failed, they helped to lay the groundwork for many other discoveries to come.
Even a genius can have a bad day.
A Birmingham native, Dana Crisson remembers visiting the McWane building in its original incarnation as the former Loveman’s Department Store. She has a BA in English/Journalism from UAB and has worked as freelance writer for The Birmingham News & Over the Mountain Journal for over 15 years. She is also a former Discovery Guild member and has clocked many volunteer hours at the science center before joining the McWane staff in the Education Department. She is an avid reader, a cat lover, a concert junkie, and a part-time backup singer in a local cover band. She and her husband, Dwight, a CPA, have two daughters, Rachel, 20, and Christina, 17.