Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Engineer, Innovator – Part 1 – Theory and Practice

Leonardo da Vinci’s understanding of both theoretical and practical engineering principles enabled him to surpass many of his peers. His career offers a compelling role model for modern engineers and a challenge to modern academia

Prior to the 15th century, mechanical theory (statics, dynamics, & kinematics) was an abstract discipline. It was clearly separated from mechanical design (detailed drawing and the development of  working models or actual products). This separation between theoretical and practical mirrored a centuries-old distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts, where ‘mechanical arts’ included anything that involved using the hands. By this definition, mechanical arts were considered ‘culturally inferior’ because they involved manual work. Even physicians and surgeons, not to mention goldsmiths and sculptors, struggled throughout the Middle Ages to see their vocations recognized as intellectual pursuits that also included the use of their hands. As a result, it wasn’t until the first half of the 1400’s that engineers came into their own as authors of scholarly works, not just as artisans. (224)

Leonardo da Vinci came on the scene in the late 1400’s, at the perfect time, with the perfect mix of artistic capacity, mechanical aptitude, and intellectual curiosity. He and several contemporaries, Renaissance artist-engineers, proceeded to build upon the recent ‘marriage’ of theoretical and practical… But Leonardo was unique. The rigor that he applied to his work was unheard of in his day. He conducted literally hundreds of theoretical studies of machines and mechanical elements that would form the foundation for modern mechanical engineering. His artistic capacities brought us some beautiful paintings, but they also enabled him to advance mechanical drafting to a new, more descriptive, yet more concise, method of communicating form, fit, and function. He helped to close the separation between mechanical theory and applied mechanics.

Today, we are seeing another form of the same schism between the theoretical and the practical in mechanical engineering – and it is just as debilitating to effective engineering today as it was in the 15th century. During the second half of the 20th century, as engineering disciplines incorporated more and more sophisticated mathematical concepts, distinct strata began forming within mechanical engineering. Theoretical topics and related research received more and more attention in academic circles because they made for the best PhD dissertations, and often resulted in the most lucrative grants and generous endowments. Application of the theoretical principles and the challenges developing marketable products were left for others. Subtly, over several decades, the bias of academia toward research and the theoretical began to manifest itself in a similar mindset in young engineers. Today, we are faced with a generation of young professors, and their students, who are adept at research and publishing scholarly papers – but ill-equipped to face the practical challenges of the mechanical engineering profession.

This trend has resulted in a significant shortfall of capable mechanical engineering graduates in the West – and also in Asia. Today, we find many young engineers who are good “report writers” and “test takers” but they are not prepared to solve practical engineering problems (the kind we hire them to solve). Many of these young engineers lack the understanding of the basic physics of their domains, and as a result, they find themselves “lost” when they face a problem that doesn’t fit the text-book forms that they studied for exams during school. In Aerospace, and other industries as well, we find that we must invest significant time and energy to “finish” the engineering education that these young engineers (and the companies they serve) need in order to succeed.
One of the most glaring gaps in the education of these young engineers is the lack of “hands on” experience regarding the processes required to manufacture, assemble, and test real products. Without this foundational knowledge, the solutions proposed by a young engineer are likely to be impractical and/or too costly.
Another trend that we’re wrestling with is the desire of young engineers to either specialize too soon or too try and learn about everything. Those who specialize in a particular engineering tool or activity (e.g. FEA) too soon can find themselves “stuck” a few years later when they need a broader knowledge or experience base in order to grow in their engineering domain. Those who try to cover too many subjects or technologies too soon may find that they don’t know enough about the engineering fundamentals to accurately assess the implications of a particular decision during the design & development process.
We advise engineering students to “learn one thing well”… To master the basics of their engineering domain so that they understand the fundamentals, the physics, of their discipline. Then they will have the tools they need to tackle the challenges they will face on the job.
This understanding of the fundamentals, the theoretical and the practical, was what set Leonardo da Vinci apart from most of the inventors and engineers of his day. He “got it”… and that allowed him to see solutions that none of his peers ever considered. That also prepared him to add the third important component of his phenomenal ability: aesthetic sensibility. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, and he brought that appreciation of beauty and symmetry to his scientific pursuits. His designs addressed the theoretical and the practical in a way that was elegant, even beautiful. (225)
What we need in engineering education today, is a return to the balanced approach that we see in Leonardo da Vinci’s work. We need to provide a solid foundation of theoretical and practical understanding of engineering principles. When we accomplish that, we will see a significant improvement in “bottom line” performance because of the significant contributions of the young engineers who are prepared to take on the challenge of an Aerospace career.
The book: “Leonardo’s Machines” by Taddei, Zannon, and Laurenza proved very helpful in researching this post.
 – Dave Ranson

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