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December 11, 2001

A public radio commentary

We think of technological innovations as new, but the truth is much closer to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

The prime example of this is Leonardo Da Vinci. Not as an artist, but rather Leonardo Da Vinci the engineer.

It's not well known, but he was so fascinated by technology that he neglected his artistic work. One patron who sought to commission a painting wrote in exasperation "he is so much distracted from painting by his mathematical experiments as to become intolerant of the brush."

I'm happy for this, because I get great pleasure from browsing through his notebooks. What I love most is looking for those inventions that show how far he was ahead of his time.

He designed everything from helicopters to parachutes. There is even a strong hint that he designed a bicycle some 400 years before the first one appeared. One drawing, in particular, has always fascinated me. It is a plan for a most remarkable bridge.

It came about in 1500, when Ambassadors from the Ottoman Empire came to Rome looking for Italian engineers. They needed to build a bridge over the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait near Istanbul. Leonardo Da Vinci offered his services as an engineer.

For the Ottoman Ambassadors he designed a bridge of solid stone. Its span of over 1000 feet would have made it the longest bridge at the time. But the Ottoman Sultan took a look at Leonardo's design and rejected it. He and his advisors felt it too radical, and were sure it could never hold much weight, let alone ever be built.

To my eye Leonardo's bridge design is surprisingly modern. It is made of three arches, which look like a series of archers bows pulled back in parallel. Like all Da Vinci designs it combines perfectly function and aesthetics. Although the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire didn't believe in this bridge design, I'm pleased that today you can walk across that bridge.

In 1996 a Norwegian artist, Vebjoern Sand came across this bridge design in a touring exhibit of Leonardo's engineering drawings. Sond was overwhelmed by the beauty of it. To him it was the Mona Lisa of bridges. He started a campaign to convince the Norwegian Highway Department that the bridge could be built. He succeeded. Now, Leonardo's wonderful bridge stands triumphantly in a small town about twenty miles south of Oslo. Part of the triumph is that Leonardo's bridge isn't just a structure. It's a symbol that joins together art and science, usefulness and beauty. In sum, it is the representation of a great renaissance mind.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises