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The Helicopter

Leonardo da Vinci’s Helicopter

leonardo da vinci helicopter

leonardo da vinci helicopter


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micro jet engine

Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter is a world renowned example of his ability to think centuries ahead of his time. It is the first known drawing of any helicopter-like machine.

Nikola Tesla's Turbine

Nikola Tesla’s Turbine

The ancient Chinese had designs for lighter than air flight, such as hot air balloons and even some wild firework powered machines (some of which are believed to have been tested resulting in the death of the pilot) but nothing similar to a helicopter.leonardo da vinci's helicopter (2)











The design was drawn in 1493, 450 years earlier than an actual helicopter would take to the air. The main blade was 2 meters in diameter & the main supporting structure was to be held together by reeds – or maybe Leonardo could use his invention for the rope making machine for this problem ;). To the left is an image of our hand-cranked model that we made of Leonardo’s helicopter.

Leonardo’s invention for the Helicopter was most likely conceptualized while he was either studying or examining the seeds of the Maple Tree. This is the seed that most of us played with as children whereby it spins as it is dropping. maple seed leonardo's helicopterUndoubtedly while watching the seeds fall Leonardo asked himself the following question – “If the seed spins while it is falling, would it rise through the air if it was spun?”. Leonardo often based his designs on things he had observed in nature – he designed his glider based on a Bat’s wing & he designed his Tanks exterior walls based on a tortoise shell. The way Leonardo saw it was that he was taking inspiration from the greatest engineer of all time – Nature.



The closest thing that we have to Leonardo’sArchimedes Screw helicopter in ancient times would be the Archimedes Screw. This is a screw pump that was invented in Ancient Greek times by Archimedes of Syracuse, who was himself a
Polymath like Leonardo. Had Leonardo seen a sketch of Archimedes Screw and designed the helicopter from it? We’ll most likely never know.

Theory of operation of the helicopter

Leonardo’s helicopter wasbird breast leonardo da vinci helicopter designed as a human powered machine. Unfortunately for Leonardo, engines had not been invented yet (apart from Heron of Alexandria’s steam engine) and humans have NOWHERE NEAR the power to weight ratio required for them to produce enough energy to lift themselves against the force of gravity. If you want to look at animals that do have a high enough power to weight ratio for flight you need look
no further than birds – birds have very large pectoral muscles (the breast), this is because these are the muscles that power the flapping of the wings. Birds also have hollow bones, which lowers their weight substantially allowing them to take flight more easily.


Leonardo’s helicopter was designed to work by having four men standing in the central circular platform. Each man would take hold of a wooden shaft and run around the central shaft on the treaded boards. This would rotate everything on the helicopter apart from the board on which the men were running.  While turning, the “blades” of the helicopter would  “screw” into the air and this would pull the machine upward.


As i have said earlier this would never have happened due to the low power to weight ratio of the men, not to mention to astronomical weight the machine itself would have had. The lightest materials at the time would have been canvas as the covering for the blades and maybe pine wood for the machines main body, this would have resulted in a machine weighing close to, if not exceeding, a tonne.

However, it must still be recognized as a great leap of the imagination. Material Science and engine development would not allow such a machine to fly until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even during the time of the steam engine the helicopter was not a feasible machine as steam engines are very heavy, have a low power to weight ratio & we must not forget the weight of the coal and the water needed to produce the steam. The modern day helicopter basically had to wait for material science to produce aluminum as it is very strong yet lightweight (in the example of the birds above this would be for the skeleton). It also needed for engines to be developed that had a high power to weight ratio and were efficient enough to only need to carry a small amount of fuel with them yet get a large amount of power out of the fuel, engines such as the two stroke, four stroke and later on the jet turbine engine were what Leonardo needed. Once again in the case of the birds these engines replace the pectoral muscles. With aluminium and these engines you can now begin to produce a machine with a high enough power to weight ratio to allow it to go airborne.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Helicopter is just one more example of the mans brilliance in any field to which he turned his attention. We owe the invention of the Helicopter to Leonardo and several other mechanical engineering masterminds, the developments in material science and the invention of lightweight yet powerful engines.

Leonardo’s Helicopter – Advanced Engineering

Whilst Leonardo was designing his helicopter he realized that friction would play a major role in preventing the machine from rotating at sufficient speeds to gain lift. As a result he designed the worlds first modern ball bearing to lower the friction between the rotating blade assembly and the platform upon which the men were standing.

In our model of Leonardo’s helicopter we have incorporated his bearings as we imagine he would have also. f you look closely at Leonardo’s original drawing of the helicopter you will notice that the main support for the blades goes into something that looks like a barrel. We would imagine that Leonardo would have put his bearings here, so we have also :).leonardos helicopter & bearings


leonardo da vinci's helicopter (4)
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