Computing Profession

Leonardo’s Self-driving Car

Herbert Bruderer

Manufacturers like Tesla have long dreamed of autonomous vehicles. However, the idea of the robot car is not new. Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago, had already designed such a car. Whether he actually produced it is unknown.

Mechanical knight and mechanical lion

The artist engineer from Tuscany drew countless automatons and also “robots,” for example a mechanical knight with cable rolls. There is evidence that he built and demonstrated his mechanical lion. The animal was able to walk a few steps. It opened its chest and distributed lilies.

Several institutions, including museums in Florence, Milan and Vinci, have tried to rebuild his constructions. There is also a model collection in New York.

Self-propelled cart

Originally, his self-propelled cart was regarded as the forerunner of our car; today, it is assumed that it was intended for theatre stages. The spring-driven programmable vehicle was able to drive straight ahead, to the left and to the right. The images below present three replicas of different ages from Italy; they usually have three wheels.



Fig. 1: Self-propelled cart.
Giorgio Canestrini built this model of the “Carro automotore” between 1952 and 1955.
Credit: © Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci,” Milan; photo: Alessandro Nassiri 2009.


Figure 2: Self-propelled cart.
According to the Codice Atlantico (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, foglio 812r), Leonardo designed this device in 1478.
Credit: © Museo Galileo, Florence



Figure 3: Self-propelled car.
This model of the automobile shows how complex the vehicle is.
Credit: © Leonardo3 Museum, Milan


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Herbert Bruderer is a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zürich. More recently, he has been an historian of technology., herbert.bruderer@bluewin.

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