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Leonardo Da Vinci's Understanding Of Gravity Was Centuries Ahead Of His Time, Sketches Show

What caught the researcher's eye was the phrase "Equatione di Moti".

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

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Sketches of experiments conducted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci showed an impressive understanding of gravity. Image credit: Public domain via the British Museum.

Researchers have discovered that sketches and notes written by Leonardo da Vinci show that he was centuries ahead of his time in terms of his understanding of gravity.

A medical engineer came across a number of sketched triangles accompanied by notes in da Vinci's Codex Arundel. 

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"What caught my eye was when he wrote ‘Equatione di Moti' on the hypotenuse of one of his sketched triangles—the one that was an isosceles right triangle," Mory Gharib, lead author of the paper, said in a press release. "I became interested to see what Leonardo meant by that phrase."

The notes were flipped (da Vinci had a habit of using mirror writing to avoid smudging, as well as his own shorthand), translated, and explored by colleagues at Cornell and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland in Geneva.

The team discovered that da Vinci had been grappling with the concept of gravity in the 14 and 1500s, and had conducted experiments that demonstrated his understanding. In the experiment, a pitcher of water is moved along a straight line, dripping all the while. 

An old drawing of an experiment in which water drops from a jug that is moving.
The experiment setup. Image credit: Caltech


Da Vinci showed in his notes and diagrams that he knew the drips would fall vertically, no longer under the jar's motion, and that the water (or sand) would accelerate downwards due to gravity. He also drew the shape that the drips would make as the jar was moved, showing a slanted line when the jug was moved at a constant rate. 

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What interested the researchers was that da Vinci drew one diagram noting that if the jug is accelerated at the same rate as gravity accelerates the falling water toward the ground, the shape made is an equilateral triangle. Here he wrote the note "equatione di Moti", which the team translates as "equalization (equivalence) of motions."

Da Vinci appeared to be demonstrating that gravity is a form of acceleration, far ahead of his time. However, when it came to mathematically describing the acceleration, he was off track – but given that he was working without any precise way to measure time, it was understandable.

"We don't know if da Vinci did further experiments or probed this question more deeply," Gharib added. "But the fact that he was grappling with this problem in this way—in the early 1500s—demonstrates just how far ahead his thinking was."

The study was published in the journal Leonardo.


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