Although most historians agree the birth of the modern car came about in the late 19th century when two Germans, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, designed real, working internal combustion engines, experiments with moving vehicles weren't uncommon beforehand. As far back as 1770, a Frenchman named Nicolas Cugnot developed a steam-powered machine, the Fardier, which could crawl through the streets of Paris at about two miles per hour. It was more than 500 years ago, however -- sometime around the year 1478 to be more or less specific -- when Leonardo drew out his plans for the world's first self-propelled vehicle.
Unlike Henry Ford's Model T in the early 1900s, Leonardo's car wasn't designed for mass-production. It wasn't truly a passenger car, since it didn't even have a seat. The vehicle was actually designed as a special attraction for Renaissance festivals, meant to instill wonder and awe in attendees. Like many of Leonardo's sketches, however, the car remained on paper throughout his lifetime -- we can only speculate that the machine was either considered too dangerous to operate or the inventor didn't have adequate materials to build it.
In 2004, Paolo Galluzzi, director of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, oversaw a project to finally build a working model of Leonardo's invention. Although there were several attempts to build the car during the 20th century, each one had failed due to unclear instructions in Leonardo's sketches. Experts originally believed two leaf springs, the simplest form of the spring typically used for automotive suspensions, somehow powered the vehicle. Closer inspection eventually revealed the power came from bigger, coiled springs located in tambours, cylindrical drum-like casings, inside the
Galluzzi and a team of engineers spent four months designing a digital model to make sure they knew the machine would work. Leonardo's designs called for a car 5 feet 6 inches long (1.68 meters) and 4 feet 11 inches wide (1.49 meters), which they built. However, the designers in Florence worried about the machine being too dangerous -- once a brake is released, it can travel for about 130 feet (40 meters) -- so they built an additional one-third scale model for testing and demonstration.
The machine works like a robot or a wind-up toy simply by rotating the wheels opposite of their intended direction, which winds up the springs inside and gives it power. The frame and many of the car's clockwork-like mechanisms, such as cogs, were made from five different types of wood.
The car also has programmable steering, which is achieved by arranging wooden blocks between gears at pre-set locations, and, oddly enough, it can only turn right. Still, Leonardo must have once again been looking forward to Florence's one-way streets. Although the contraption was allegedly designed for entertainment, Galluzzi's model proved not only that Leonardo's car worked, but the Renaissance man was centuries ahead with yet another influential invention.
For lots more on auto technology and innovation, see the next page.