Leonardo's Machines

What You Need

Leonardo's Machines


To explore Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas about design and machines.


As a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci is a fascinating historical figure. This lesson will highlight some of Leonardo's futuristic inventions, introducing the elements of machines. Leonardo provides an interesting context in which students can begin to develop their ideas about the uniqueness of humans in the natural world. Our ability to use language and thought sets us apart as the only species that can think, imagine, create, and learn from experience. Humans have used this ability to create technologies and literary and artistic works on a vast scale and to develop a scientific understanding of ourselves and the world. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 127.) No historical figure embodies this idea better than Leonardo da Vinci.

The main site used in this lesson is an Internet resource that lends itself to individual or small group explorations. Before you do the activities with the class, read the "Letter to Teachers."


Begin by asking the question: "Who was Leonardo da Vinci?" Let students tell you what they know about da Vinci and point out some of the different contexts in which they may have heard or read about him.

If students need more background information, have students explore the map on Renaissance Italy, part of the Exploring Leonardo site. This map provides information on Leonardo's life.


Using the Exploring Leonardo student esheet and student sheet, students will explore a variety of resources that will help them refine their definition of a machine. Before students explore the resource, pose the question, "What is your definition of a machine?" Have students answer the question on the student sheet. You can find answers to this question and the rest of the questions on the Exploring Leonardo teacher sheet.

First, students should read the introductory page for the Inventor's Workshop. Then, discuss these questions:

  • What kinds of machines were common in Leonardo's time? What were they like? What were they made of?
  • What new idea about machines did Leonardo have?
  • How was Leonardo's idea different from that of his contemporaries?

Next, students should use their student esheet to visit The Elements of Machines. After exploring this resource, students will again answer questions on the student sheet. Discuss the page with the class, and ask students to share their revised definitions of machines.


Using the student esheet, students will look at more of Leonardo's engineering and futuristic designs on these websites:

As they explore these resources, they should take notes about the designs and decide which of Leonardo's ideas are still useful today. They will use their notes to answer question #6 on the Exploring Leonardo student sheet.

In addition to assessing student understanding of the ideas in this lesson based on their answers to the questions on the student sheet, you may also wish to collect and grade their notes.


Leonardo's Perspective introduces Leonardo's way of looking at the world and explores Renaissance techniques for representing the 3D world on 2D surfaces.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) describes da Vinci's contributions to the life sciences, an aspect of his work that is not as well known as his artwork or his inventions. The site talks about his ideas about fossils. Some of his anatomical drawings can be found on the North Wing—Leonardo site.

See also, Leonardo, an exhibit that includes information about Leonardo's machines and a model of his ideal city.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks