Born: Italy
Primarily active in: Italy

1452 - 1519

Leonardo da Vinci, having been born a year after fellow Italian Christopher Columbus and friend of Amerigo Vespucci, lived during an age of discovery.  Outliving Columbus by twelve  years,  his long life was marked by genuine innovation and constant curiosity which was to produce the first design for a helicopter in drawings and notes in 1483.  As a learned individual,  Leonardo was familiar with the “rotating screw of Archimedes” for use in pumping water[i] and he “comprehended an elemental truth, that water and air are both fluids. . . and he compared the movement of bodies in water to that of the wind and commented that the flight of a bird resembled the swimming of a fish through water.  From this he proceeded to the thought that the Archimedean screw, meant to push along a flow of water, might work in air as well if it were turned fast enough, except that now the useful result would be obtained from the resistance of the fluid–the air would flight back and try to lift the air-screw–and thus a flying machine could be created.”[ii] 

Leonardo’s 1483 drawing,  found in MS 2173 of Manuscript B, folio 83 verso, also referred to as the Codice Atlantico, in the collection of the Bibliothèque of L’ Institut de France located in Paris, France, shows a helical air screw accompanied by his backward written notes which stated, inter alia, that “I find (if) the instrument, shaped screw form, is well made, that is made of cloth of flax (linen) stopping its pores with starch and rotated with speed, the said screw makes female in the air (bores through the air) and climbs high . . . “[iii]

Modern artistic interpretations of da Vinci’s machine clearly indicate that it was intended to carry passengers, but as observed in 1930 by Raffaele Giacomelli in a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society,[iv]  the artist/inventor never returned to  his design to refine it, even though his later writings exhibited a growing awareness of mechanical principles (e.g. ball bearings) – the author considers it “a first sketch” – but it does have the distinction of being the first design, however impractical, of a helicopter.

[i] See the discussion of Archimedes to da Vinci's design in Gablehouse, Charles.  Helicopters and Autogiros:  A History of Rotating-Wing and V/STOL Aviation. Rev. ed. Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1969.  Previous edition published as Helicopters and Autogiros:  A Chronicle of  Rotating–Wing Aircraft. Philadelphia:  Lippincott, 1967 pp. 2 – 3

[ii] Fay, John The Helicopter:  History, Piloting  and  How It Flies.  New York:  Hippocrene Books 1967, Devon, United Kingdon:  David & Charles 1976, 1977, 1987 p. 3

[iii] Liberatore, E[ugene] K.  Helicopters Before Helicopters.  Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company 1998 p. 241 quoting Ucelli, Arturo I Libri del Volo di Leonardo da Vinci.  Milan, Italy: Editore Ulrico Hoepli 1942: Libro Decimo: Del Volo Strumentale (Book Ten on mechanical Flight pp. 157 – 233;  see also Liberatore Ibid. et. Sec. For an extensive discussion of Leonardo’s manuscript and proposed helical screw; for a less literal translation, see e.g.,   Fay, John The Helicopter:  History, Piloting  and  How It Flies.  New York:  Hippocrene Books 1967, Devon, United Kingdon:  David & Charles 1976, 1977, 1987 p. 4

[iv] Giacomelli, Raffaele  “The Aerodynamics of Leonardo da Vinci”  Royal Aeronautical Society Aeronautics Journal. 1930 pp. 1016 – 38; see also Giacomelli,  R.  “La dinamica di Leonardo da Vinci”  (Italian), Aerotecnica.  Vol. 22 1952 pp.  178-191