The Robotic Knight by Leonardo da Vinci

leonardo da Vinci Robot Sketches
da Vinci’s Robot Sketches


Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), renowned as one of history’s greatest polymaths, is celebrated for his mastery in various disciplines, from art, painting, writing, sculpture, architecture, science, and engineering. A true Renaissance man whose unique ability and talent still baffles many people 5 centuries after his death. While he is most famous for his iconic paintings like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, da Vinci’s genius extended far beyond the realm of art.

One of his lesser-known yet incredibly innovative creations is the Automaton Knight, a remarkable robotic invention that showcased his extraordinary talent and foresight in the field of robotics. In this article, we will delve into the intriguing world of Leonardo da Vinci’s robotic knight, exploring its history, design, and its profound impact on the development of robotics.

The Automaton Knight’s Origins

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automaton Knight, also known as “Automa Cavaliere” in Italian, came into existence around 1495. Its creation was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and one of da Vinci’s patrons at the time. This remarkable humanoid machine represented a fusion of art, engineering, and innovation, reflecting da Vinci’s polymathic nature.

The Automa Cavaliere

The Automaton Knight featured a medieval German-Italian armor and could perform various actions, such as standing, sitting, crossing its arms, turning its head, raising its visor, and wielding a sword. Leonardo achieved these movements through intricate systems of pulleys, cables, gears, and wheels.

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

The engineering marvel behind this robot was a complex system of pulleys, cables, gears, and wheels that powered its movements. Leonardo’s meticulous attention to detail is evident in the precision and artistry with which the robot’s limbs and joints were constructed.

The robot consisted of two independent operating systems: one for the legs, with three degrees of freedom for ankles, knees, and hips, and another for the arms, featuring four degrees of freedom in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. These systems were controlled by a mechanical analogue-programmable controller housed within the robot’s chest.

Leonardo's Automata Cavaliere
Leonardo’s Automata Cavaliere

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

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

Despite its historical significance, the Automaton Knight remained largely obscure until the 1950s when Leonardo’s designs for the robot were found in the Codex Atlanticus—a collection of his sketches and notes consisting of 1119 separate pages and 481 folios. Deciphering these technical drawings was a formidable challenge, as they predated the formal methods of blueprinting.

In 1996, Mark Rosheim, an expert in modern robotics with affiliations to NASA and Lockheed Martin, embarked on the journey to resurrect da Vinci’s masterpiece. Using the sketches as a blueprint, he successfully built a prototype that could walk and perform basic movements. This achievement not only shed light on Leonardo’s groundbreaking work but also paved the way for modern advancements in robotics.

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.


Leonardo da Vinci’s Automaton Knight serves as a testament to his visionary thinking and his pioneering contributions to robotics. His work on this humanoid machine, which predates the formal field of robotics by centuries, highlights his ability to bridge the gap between art and science.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Automaton Knight is a shining example of how art and engineering can converge to create something truly extraordinary. His vision and craftsmanship continue to captivate our imagination, reminding us of the timeless nature of innovation. In an era where robots are becoming integral to our lives, da Vinci’s robotic knight stands as a symbol of how one man’s genius transcended his time, leaving an indelible mark on the future of robotics.

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