Visualising Impossible Machines

Leonardo da Vinci and Perpetual Motion at the Peltz Gallery

The search for perpetual motion was something that intrigued medieval thinkers. The first person that we know of, who worked in this field was the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta in the Sixth Century CE. The 13th century architect Villard de Honnecourt drew a mechanical overbalanced wheel. By the Renaissance there was a long history of attempts to design such motions.

Leonard da Vinci, who died 500 years ago this year, was one of the more prominent people who took on this challenge. A key player in the disruptive energies of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo was part artist, scientist, engineer, and thinker. He might be what we would call today a maker.

His notebooks are full of doodes of new technologies, some of which would not be realised until years after his death (albeit with some serious technological developments). For example, he designed the helicopter.

 

Digital technology and impossible machines

His images of perpetual motion machines would never work. Nineteenth century thermodynamics has proven that.

However this show at the Peltz Gallery attempts to show what such machines would look like if they did work. Using digital technology (both 3D printing, animations and augmented reality) offers. the audience a view of something which is practically impossible. Indeed, it is only when we see the machines run that we realise how impossible they are.

Leonardo thought that the inertia of an overbalanced wheel would counteract the opposite force of gravity. He failed to appreciate the loss of energy through friction. He was thinking about perpetual motion before Newton had set out his principles of force and motion in the Principia Mathematica.

This exhibition uses digital technology in the best possible way, complementing existing collections and offering audiences the chance to see something which they otherwise would not see, in this case making an abstract concept something that can be seen and experienced.

A fine exhibition, make sure you see it. In its small way, this is setting a paradigm for what exhibitions can be in the 21st century.