Design for a Flying Machine, by Leonardo da Vinci.

Dear Dr. Boli: I was looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks full of inventions, and I was thinking: What would the world be like today if Leonardo had been able to secure corporate funding? Would we have flying cars? —Sincerely, A Professor of Alternative Futurology.

Dear Sir or Madam: It is not surprising that you should be fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo could do just about anything well. His paintings are counted among the great masterpieces of the world’s art. He was an architect of no little skill and taste. He could play “I’ve Been Floating Down the Old Green River” on the banjo faster than anyone else. He wrote a series of bestselling thrillers under the name “Dick Francis.” He was reputed to be the most devious badminton player in Europe.

But his notebooks are what fascinate us today. He filled them with ideas for practical inventions that were centuries ahead of their time—a submarine, a machine gun, a flying machine, a warp drive, a spork, and countless other ideas that never went anywhere, because he was not such a fool as to publish them. There was, after all, an Inquisition to take into account.

But it is tempting to wonder, as you do, what the world would be like if Leonardo’s ideas had been put into practice. Dr. Boli, having looked into the notebooks of Leonardo, has concluded that his flying machine would have tumbled out of the sky the first time it was launched from a high place, and the test pilot would doubtless have been impaled on his own spork. So the world would probably have been pretty much the same, except perhaps with more of a healthy aversion to flying machines.


  1. Leonardo’s design for a “tank” or armored fighting vehicle consisted of a round, turtle-like vehicle with multiple muzzle-loading cannon arranged around its periphery, pointing in all directions to cover all 360 degrees of the circle. This certainly would have had a great effect on any battlefield, provided it was employed, as all such armored vehicles seem to be first deployed in both history and alternate history, in small numbers scatted among large formations of allied foot soldiers in an infantry support role. By firing in all directions at once, the roughly equal numbers of friendly and enemy soldiers thus killed or maimed would have doubtless proved such a stirring example of equality and fairness as to have inspired a renewed push for a diplomatic solution amenable to all sides, regardless of the causes for which that war might have been supposedly fought in the first place.

  2. Captain DaFt says:

    “having looked into the notebooks of Leonardo, has concluded that his flying machine would have tumbled out of the sky the first time it was launched from a high place”

    Was that his ornithopter?

    I ask because he invented several ‘flying’ machines.

    His parachute has been tested twice in modern times, and worked better than original modern types.

    His helicopter would probably have settled gently down when dropped from a height, but most likely, the four men operating it would have been rapidly slung out due to the force generated by its spinning blade as it descended. No way would they have ever generated enough force to lift it off the ground, though. (Unless they picked it up and carried it, of course.)

    His glider was allegedly built and tested by him successfully, but a modern re-creation needed a tail before it could fly. (Leonardo DID have the habit of altering or omitting parts in his designs to deter copycats though, so make of that what you will.)

    As for his ornithopter, he actually kept designing and redesigning that one for most of his life, but never built a prototype. It was his obsession that Man could fly like a bird, but even he couldn’t make it work.

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