The Robotic Knight by Leonardo da Vinci

leonardo da Vinci Robot Sketches
Leonardo da Vinci Robot Sketches

To write about Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments in a single post, most of which were completed by mere candlelight, won’t do justice to his true talent. Nevertheless, writing about specific inventions, paintings, or engineering wonders would be more suited to the task.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was a very intelligent and prolific man whose outstanding genius was centuries ahead of his peers. Much has been written and said about his works. Leonardo was a polymath who dabbed in many areas such as painting, writing, sculpture, architecture, science and engineering, among many others. A true Renaissance man whose unique ability and talent still baffles many people 5 centuries after his death.

One of those lesser-known engineering wonders is the Automa Cavaliere, literally the Automaton Knight.

da Vinci's Automaton Knight
da Vinci’s Automaton Knight

The Automa Cavaliere

In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have designed and built a humanoid machine called Automaton Knight (“Automa Cavaliere” in Italian) with patronage from Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan at the time.

Leonardo's Automata Cavaliere
Leonardo’s Automata Cavaliere

Leonardo da Vinci actually produced a mechanical man, an armour-like body with machinery surrounding it, for a private party held by his wealthy patron, Ludovico Sforza. Rather than merely creating the design, he built it with the canonical proportions that he had used before for his Vitruvian Man.

The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci
The Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automaton Knight had a medieval German-Italian armour. It was designed to stand, sit, cross his arms, turn his head, raise his own visor and wave his sword; using two complexes, linked systems consisting of pulleys, cables, gears, and wheels for movement.

The robot had two independent operating systems. The first had three degree-of-freedom legs, ankles, knees, and hips. The second had four degrees of freedom in the arms with articulated shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. A mechanical analogue-programmable controller within the chest provided the power and control for the arms. The legs were powered by an external crank arrangement driving the cable, which connected to key locations near each lower extremity’s joints.

Moran ME. The da Vinci robot. J Endourol. 2006 Dec; 20(12):986-90. doi: 10.1089/end.2006.20.986. PMID: 17206888.

Mark Rosheim

Leonardo’s Automaton Knight was rediscovered in the 1950’s, in a series of sketches collectively known as the Codex Atlanticus, consisting of 1119 separate pages and 481 folios. The Robotic Knight’s obscurity came from the fact that it was very difficult to decipher the technical aspects of the designs, since it precedes any formal method of blueprinting design.

In 1996, Mark Rosheim, an academic researcher and expert on modern robotics known for his contributions to NASA and Lockheed Martin, began to study Leonardo’s numerous surviving notebooks. In 2002, using many different drawings as blueprint, he was able to build a prototype that could walk and waddle.

A modern reconstruction of the robot of Leonardo da Vinci in the Leonardo3 laboratories, in 2007
A modern reconstruction of the robot of Leonardo da Vinci in the Leonardo3 laboratories, in 2007

He received an order to create a humanoid robot to service space stations. As a result, a whole series of robots was created, including two humanoids and several prototypes of humanoid omni-hands.

Later, Rosheim applied these developments to create NASA robots.

Robots from Leonardo to the present: a video interview with Mark Rosheim

In his book ‘Leonardo’s Lost Robot’s, Rosheim wrote that he used the physical proportions and hand control mechanism from Leonardo’s drawings in his work. The drawings show that the robot’s skeleton resembles that of a knight.

Researchers at the Leonardo3 Museum believe that the robot had a military purpose. They visualized how such automatons could be used in the defence of fortresses.

Il Soldato Robot nascosto nei codici

Other Automatons

Other automatons created by da Vinci include a self-propelled carriage, a horse, a mechanical lion and a hydraulically powered machine which could be programmed to sound a bell.

Da Vinci also included a pulley mechanism into his invention of a self-propelled cart, and this is considered by many the very first robot. One of the designs which was prominently featured on one of da Vinci’s mechanical animals was that of Leonardo’s horse; the lion was supposed to work via a gear-and-pulley system, which was similar to that of the horse.

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6 thoughts on “Leonardo da Vinci built a Robotic Knight in 1495

  1. A good post about the great personality of the past. It makes me think of, how intelligent he was, even at those earlier times. Thanks for posting this stuff in order to make us aware about the great personality Leonardo Da Vinci.

  2. Leonardo was a visionary genius, ahead of his time, every time I read about him he never ceases to amaze me with all the talents he had and everything he achieved that even today is one of the most emblematic figures in the history of humanity .

  3. Da Vinci’s robots were mostly for the entertainment of his wealthier patrons, such as the automatic lion he invented for the king of France. The knight was mostly used for theatrical displays at parties thrown by Sforza.