Leonardo da Vinci Helicopter


Leonardo da Vinci helicopter drawing 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 and how to draw a helicopter.


Leonardo da Vinci Helicopter

Leonardo da Vinci’s aerial screw


Who designed the helicopter – 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.


When were helicopters invented, Leonardo’s design, 450 years earlier than the first helicopter ever made to the air, could be described as an “aerial screw“. The main blade was 2 meters in diameter, and the main supporting structure was to be held together by reeds – or maybe Leonardo could use his invention of the rope to make the machine for this problem.


Flying seeds of Maple tree


Who invented the helicopter? Leonardo’s invention of 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. Undoubtedly, 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, and he designed his Tanks exterior walls based on a tortoiseshell. The way Leonardo saw it was that he was taking inspiration from the greatest engineer of all time – Nature.


Archimedes Screw

Diagram of Archimedes Screw

The closest thing that we need to think about the Leonardo’s helicopter 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 will most likely never know.


Theory of operation of the helicopter

Leonardo’s helicopter was 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 the flight, you need to 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.


bird breast leonardo da vinci helicopter

Bird breast Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter


Leonardo helicopters were designed to work by having four men standing on the central circular platform. In his helicopter sketch, 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 in his drawing helicopters.



As we 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 machine’s main body, this would have resulted in a machine weighing close to, if not exceeding, a tone.

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.

When was the first helicopter made is on Sep 14, 1939, the world’s first practical helicopter to feature a single main rotor and tail rotor design designed by Igor Sikorsky. The modern-day helicopter 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 was what Leonardo needed. Once again in the case of the birds, these engines replace the pectoral muscles. With aluminum 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.


Igor Sikorsky

First Helicopter, VS-300, Sep 14, 1939


Da vincis helicopter design is just one more example of the man’s 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 world’s first modern ball bearing to lower the friction between the rotating blade assembly and the platform upon which the men were standing.

If 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.



Leonardo’s helicopter image with bearing


Model of Leonardo da Vinci Air Screw

Model of Leonardo da Vinci Air Screw



Leonardo da Vinci Helicopter model is based on his original sketch. It is of wood and canvas construction (exactly as it should be) and this model simply snaps together and no gluing is required.


Leonardo da Vinci helicopter model

Leonardo da Vinci helicopter model