The Wired ran a truly fascinating article on Da Vinci a few years ago. It shows that Da Vinci was indeed in a league of his own and sheds light on Da Vinci the roboticist! Here is the link and an excerpt below:
The historical record offers no mention of da Vinci having built a cart. Pedretti, however, unearthed a potential clue. “I found a fantastic document, date 1600,” Pedretti says. “It’s a description of a banquet held in Paris to honor the new queen of France, who was a Medici. On that occasion, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger observed the presentation of a mechanical lion. It walked, opened its chest, and in place of a heart it had fleurs-de-lis.” Pedretti pauses, gathering more papers. “This document, which was totally unknown, says this was a concept similar to one that Leonardo carried out in Lyons on the occasion of Francis I.” It appears da Vinci had engaged in high tech diplomacy circa 1515.
The cart, suggests Pedretti, may have been an early study in an emerging da Vinci sideline. Leonardo, he believes, created animated spectacles centuries before the great age of the European automata of Jacques de Vaucansan and Wolfgang von Kempelen. “The irony of the whole thing is that there is not a single hint in Leonardo’s manuscripts of this greatest technological invention,” Pedretti says. “Imagine to have a lion walk and stand on its legs and open up its chest – this is top technology!” What happened to those pages of drawings that would have revealed the inner workings of these wondrous devices? Perhaps they lie misfiled in some lost archive; perhaps they were destroyed by some church authority in the manner of Albertus Magnus’ mechanical woman, smashed by Thomas Aquinas as a work of the devil.
Half a millennium on, the cart could, says Rosheim, not only rewrite the history of robotics but also bring another da Vinci to light: da Vinci the roboticist. “If it was simply a spring-powered cart, it would not be that big a deal,” he says. “What’s significant is that you can replace or change these cams and alter how it goes about its path – in other words, it’s programmable in an analog, mechanical sense. It’s the Disney animatronics of its day.” The individual parts, interestingly, are not original to da Vinci – gears, cams, and the verge-and-foliot mechanism were all familiar concepts, particularly to clockmaking, the nanotech of da Vinci’s day. Indeed, as the historian Otto Mayr has noted, “clocks and automata, in short, tended to be very much the same thing”; clocks, in 16th-century dictionaries, were considered just one type of automata. But the possibility is that da Vinci married two ideas and created, in essence, a clock on wheels – turning the segmenting of time into the traversing of space – well before anyone else had thought of such a thing. No one could have done it as elegantly, in so compact a package, says Rosheim. “The robot cart is one of the most significant missing links in studying Leonardo. Suddenly, many drawings are making sense.”