Da Vinci’s Automatic Cart
Long before the first motor-driven vehicle was realized and sent to the assembly line for mass production, Leonardo Da Vinci had already toyed with the notion of an automatic cart. His wooden contraption on wheels would move under its own power without needing to be pushed. The cart was among several mechanical inventions devised by Leonardo for mobility and transportation.
Laying Tracks for a Future Automobile Industry
Sometime in 1478, Leonardo began sketching his idea of an automatic cart. In theory, it was an exciting design to introduce yet another Da Vinci technological breakthrough: the first ever, self-propelled vehicle in history. Although rather unrefined in appearance, his mechanized marvel would serve to turn heads in fascination, stimulating both the imagination and the idea of progress. Alas, the crude “car” never saw the light of day during Leonardo’s lifetime (nor shortly thereafter) as he lacked the proper materials or means of construction to carry out his plan. Creating the parts alone for his highly-ambitious steering system required very advanced machining techniques that would not be developed until centuries later.
Putting the Wheels in Motion
According to his drawings, Leonardo’s “car” was essentially a box-shaped wagon supported by three wheels. But unlike the cars that eventually came to be, it is estimated that Da Vinci’s automatic cart would have been built to a size measuring only a meter in length, width and height. Also, it had no driver’s seat.
Often referred to by historians as the “clockwork car” due to its coiled-spring power source, the vehicle incorporated early robot technology (possibly another first) by featuring a primitive auto pilot steering system. At its core was a complex cog-and-gear mechanism. Attached to it was a type of “guide wheel” into which a series of pegs could be inserted. The combined components would allow the user to pre-program a specific course for the car to travel.
Because Da Vinci’s conveyance was powered by springs, the coils needed to be wound before it could move forward. Using Leonardo’s design calculations for spring size and propulsion, it is believed his rolling invention would have been able to cover a distance of roughly 40 meters on a single winding. It also came fully equipped with a braking device.
Da Vinci’s Driving Influence
In 1905, Italian intellectual and avid Da Vinci follower Girolamo Calvi stumbled upon the famed inventor’s drawings for the self-propelled cart, affectionately nicknaming it “Leonardo's Fiat”. With only his seemingly ancient sketches to work from, even the world’s greatest scholars were perplexed and left to ponder about the precise operation of the cart, that is, until the late 20th century. Finally, in 1997, the discovery of coiled springs hidden in drums beneath the vehicle revealed its ultimate means of propulsion.
A group of experts working at The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy soon began the challenging task of developing Da Vinci’s automatic cart idea into an actual, fully-functional model, built to scale. They faced months and months of laboring over every little detail drawn. Eventually, their hard work paid off. After investing 7 years into the project, the technical team was successful in building a real working version of the 1478 tri-wheeled cart, based solely on Leonardo’s vision.
In 2004, the vehicle went on display and many engineering buffs were quick to note a slight resemblance to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover. This “coincidence” goes to show that Da Vinci’s influence was far more reaching than originally thought.