Exploring Balboa Park: The visionary da Vinci

Posted: November 6th, 2015 | Columnists, Exploring Balboa Park, Featured | No Comments

By Johnny McDonald

Leonardo da Vinci remains one of history’s most fascinating people, not only for his famous paintings, but also for his far-reaching explorations into science, machines and robotics.

More than 90 artworks and replicated machines, many of which are interactive, will be on display every day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) through Jan. 3, 2017, at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

We toured the “Da Vinci: The Ultimate Innovator” special exhibit with Curator Terry Brennan, where models and artwork are arranged in three categories — transportation, military and mechanical — the interactive models were built in Florence, Italy.

Brennan shared information on the collection that brings da Vinci’s most important and impressive inventions — including the bicycle, a spring-powered car, hang glider and helicopter — to life.

He was an astronomer, sculptor, geologist, mathematician, botanist, animal behaviorist, inventor, engineer, architect and even a musician.


Curator Terry Brennan with Da Vinci’s ornithopter (Photo by Linda Hite)

If da Vinci were alive today he’d probably be mapping universe travel, sketching well-advanced inventions and using his talents to broaden culture.

It wasn’t known until the 19th century that the artist who painted the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” was also a Renaissance visionary who saw the modern world before it was realized.

“Da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480s and had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight,” said Brennan, who is also director of restoration at the museum.

“Some experts feel that the modern day helicopter was inspired by his concept,” he continued. “It was a continuous lifting airfoil motion which was called an aerial screw.”

Little of his sculpture or engineering works survived. His notebooks, the only surviving evidence of his curiosity regarding science and technology, were hidden away, dispersed in private hands.

Among the many subjects Leonardo studied, the possibility of human flight held particular fascination.

“Unfortunately man’s arms were not strong enough to fly like a bird,” Brennan tossed in.

However da Vinci considered a pilot’s position in a potential flying machine and how control could be achieved by shifting the body weight, precisely as the early glider pioneers of the late 19th century.

“He was the first person to envision a double hull for a ship,” Brennan said. “So if the exterior hull was damaged the boat wouldn’t sink. They use that basic construction today.”

His spring-propelled car, too, is unusual. The gearing is pretty neat in itself.

“It was his idea to transfer energy with a circular motion for his machines,” Brennan said. He also explained da Vinci’s theater lighting principle, whereby placing a candle inside a box could amplify light onto a stage.

Among other interesting things was the use of ball bearings and a flywheel.

For the past 50 years, a group of Florentine artisans have pored over da Vinci’s notes and drawings in an attempt to create replicas of his work, relying solely on raw materials that were available.

Hall of fame inductions … Alan Mulally, former executive vice president of Boeing, Tom Cassidy, RADM, USN (Ret.) and Frank Pace from San Diego-based General Atomics are among eight honorees being enshrined during this year’s International Air & Space Hall of Fame induction celebration, Nov. 19. Among the others are PSA airline founders Kenneth and Jean Friedkin. The late Mr. Friedkin was an American aviator and businessman. He obtained his pilot license at 17. PSA was created in 1949. Since 1963 more than 200 of the world’s most significant pilots, crewmembers, visionaries, inventors, aerospace engineers, business leaders, preservationists, designers and space pioneers have been inducted into the important hall of fame right here in Balboa Park.

Elsewhere around the park — There are three museums that don’t receive the accolades of some of the larger facilities in the park. Located in the Casa de Balboa building are the History Center, the Photography Museum and the Model Railroad Museum … The History Center houses over 2.5 million historical photographs, 45 million documents, and 7,000 pieces of costume and textiles, while the exhibits in the Photography Museum include a collection of over 7,000 images, representing the history of photography, its aesthetic movements, and technological advancements, which are particularly strong in modern and contemporary work … At 28,000 square feet, the model railroad museum is the world’s largest in operation. It contains four enormous scale and model layouts, built by enthusiasts from separate model railroad clubs.

—After an award-winning, 38-year sports-writing career with the San Diego Union and authoring three books, Johnny McDonald now considers writing a hobby. You can reach him at

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