The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” in French, was a breath of fresh air for the tech thought that had stagnated during the Middle Ages. The new age gave birth to many talented minds who tried to push the boundaries of what was possible. 

Looking back to Antiquity and wishing to revive its cultural values and ideals, the philosophers and inventors of the Renaissance, having no idea, developed a new sociocultural formation that will be remembered as a transitional period between the Middle Ages and the New Age. This article is about people, theories, and inventions that made it happen. 

Leonardo, the engineering genius

The Renaissance in Italy was born much earlier than in the rest of Europe. At the turn of the 13th-14th centuries, in the Apennine Peninsula, an era with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) as a key figure emerged. He was a polymath, artist, architect, and inventor from Florence who predetermined the development of many machines and mechanisms for centuries. 

Da Vinci’s artistic genius allowed him to create many detailed drawings illustrating the appearance of his inventions and the ways they worked. In particular, Leonardo improved the parachute technology, invented the first bathyscaphe, the armored car (almost 500 years before the first cars appeared), and a mechanized bucket for digging the ground. Da Vinci was the inventor of one of the first mechanical alarm clocks, which woke people up by pouring ice-cold water on their feet and a hand corkscrew for uncorking bottles. 

Many drawings of these devices are presented in Leonardo’s work of life, a 12-volume Codex Atlanticus, compiled by Pompeo Leoni after the master’s death.

3D model of Leonardo da Vinci's armored car
3D model of Leonardo da Vinci’s armored car. The car could move in any direction with a basic gear system and had many light cannons that fired through the peepholes

Leonardo da Vinci was an avid theatergoer who came up with the concept of the first flying machines in his desire to diversify the stage action. Leonardo borrowed the mechanics of flying machine movement from the representatives of flying fauna: birds and bats. 

The artist’s notes also revealed another device, first recognized only 400 years after the inventor’s death – a helicopter prototype. The helicopter had a blade with aerodynamic plumage. In theory, the spiral rotation of the blade allowed the device to overcome air resistance and float above the Earth. Despite good aerodynamic properties, the Da Vinci helicopter was not viable because of the lack of an engine. Nevertheless, in 2022, a graduate student from the University of Maryland, Austin Prete, designed an analog of Leonardo’s blades, attaching them to the drone and demonstrating the device’s functionality. 


Blueprint of Leonardo da Vinci's Macholet
Despite the good aerodynamic properties of its design, Da Vinci’s flying machine could hardly fly because it lacked the main element – the engine 

Da Vinci was involved not only in applied engineering but also in science. In his writings, he paid special attention to motion and its description. In discussing the motion of bodies, Leonardo wrote, “All motion tends to continue, or rather, a body continues to move as long as it retains the forces that set it in motion.” In fact, his reasoning about motion and inertia, later developed by Galileo’s experiments with an inclined plane, preceded the laws of classical mechanics formulated by Newton two centuries later. 

Starting from 1490, Leonardo da Vinci became obsessed with the question of creating a perpetual motion machine and clearly described the forces that would permanently prevent the appearance of such a device. In particular, he discussed the energy loss caused by friction. 

Da Vinci, as an artist, demonstrated a pure interest in the human body science, anatomy, which was actively popularized during the Renaissance. Practical lessons in anatomy allowed Leonardo to learn much more about the human body and its proportions than any other artist of his time. 

Vitruvian Man - Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as a clear demonstration of the anthropocentrism prevalent in the Renaissance

The vast majority of Leonardo’s engineering machines would never have been built during his lifetime due to the lack of technology and materials. In 2006, a group of scientists, including Mario Taddei, Eduardo Zanon, and Domenico Laurens, using 3D modeling technology, brought many of Leonardo’s drawings to life to see exactly how they worked. The results of their work are presented in the book “Leonardo’s Machines,” first published in 2006.

After Leonardo da Vinci’s death, his entire artistic and scientific legacy was left to his close friend and follower, Francesco Mezzi. Still, when the latter died in 1570, most of the master’s manuscripts became scattered and were effectively lost to the ages, settling in private collections. A new wave of interest in the heritage of Leonardo was noticed only in the 19th century when a number of researchers and collectors started to tie together all the drawings, scientific notes, and paintings of the brilliant Florentine. 

Knowing Man: Paracelsus and Vesalius

In the cultural sense, the Renaissance is remembered for its ideas of humanism and anthropocentrism. If, in art, it manifested itself in new painting and sculpture trends with the human figure in the center, in the scientific sense – the development of anatomy and innovations in the medical field.

Among the other natural philosophers of his time, the figure of Philipp von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), stood out more than any other. Born in Switzerland, he received a brilliant healthcare education from his parents. By the age of 16, von Hohenheim was well versed in the basics of alchemy, as well as a basic knowledge of surgery and therapeutic treatments. 

Paracelsus was a Swiss alchemist, physician, philosopher, naturalist, and Renaissance natural philosopher
Having fought in at least three wars as a field surgeon, Paracelsus developed a methodology for treating gunshot wounds that became relevant with the advent of gunpowder in Europe

In the Middle Ages, the Church condemned the performance of anatomical autopsies and any other activity aimed at studying the human body. However, with the decline of church morality, which was caused by Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, this prohibition began to be overcome. Paracelsus was among these people who received his education in Italy at the Faculty of Ferrara and then started to teach at the University of Basel. 

In his desire to make his lectures more accessible to students, Paracelsus translated most of the Latin works on medicine and began to teach them in German, which became a real challenge to the entire scientific tradition of the Old World. Paracelsus’s pioneering approach to learning was severely criticized by his contemporaries, so he abandoned his teaching practices to devote himself entirely to practical medicine. He was one of the first to use chemicals in medical treatment and, in fact, gave rise to pharmacology. 

Paracelsus and his followers severely criticized humoral medicine – the ancient notion that the human body contains four main fluids (humors): blood, phlegm (mucus), yellow bile, and black bile. They believed that all four fluids are naturally balanced in a healthy person’s body, and any deviation from their proportions may cause the disease.

The Four Temperaments. Engraving from a book by Leonard Tourneisser
A 16th-century illustration describing four human fluids: mucus (flegmat), blood (sangvin), black mucus (melanc), and yellow mucus (coleric)

Paracelsus was also well aware that such diseases as syphilis could not be treated with herbs and decoctions alone. In his medical works, he first used certain metals, which patients were supposed to use orally to achieve a vomiting and cleansing effect. Sometimes, the chemical composition of these metals was changed artificially to reduce their toxicity. Great attention was also paid to the correct dosage of the new drugs. What had a positive effect on the body in small doses could kill humans in large doses. Opponents of Paracelsus’ innovative approach to using drugs unconventional for their time often accused their medical colleagues of killing the patients they were treating.

One of the followers of Paracelsus was the Brussels physician Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), whose works on anatomy would provide the most extensive insight into the human body in the entire history of medical observation. The most important work of Vesalius was a treatise on the human body, set out in seven books called “The Anatomy of the Human Body” (a.k.a. “De humani corporis fabrica”). At the time of writing, the scientist was only 28 years old. 

The anatomical autopsies that Vesalius conducted with his students enabled him to refute a number of false theories accepted by the canonical church, in particular the notion of the system of blood movement in the body that prevailed in Christian Europe for many centuries. It would later be proved by another English physician, William Garvey (1578-1657), who would conclude the heart was a powerful pump whose primary function was blood circulation. 

Understanding the nature of magnetism 

In monarchical England, a talented physician, William Gilbert, served at the court of Elizabeth I. In addition to his medical talent, he had a great interest in science, particularly in the previously undescribed force of magnetic attraction. In 1600, just three years before his death, William Hilbert published his work, “On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies and on the Great Magnet the Earth” (a.k.a. “De Magnete” in brief). It was one of the first works on practical experimental physics as we know it nowadays. 

Gilbert was able to prove experimentally that any magnet has two poles. He also discovered that the poles of the same name always repel, and the poles of different names always attract. Moreover, William Gilbert investigated the effect of magnets on the position of the compass needle. His experiment with a magnetized ball called a terella or “little Earth” and its effect on the magnetic compass, Versorium, led him to one of the most important conclusions of his scientific career: the Earth is a giant dipole magnet.

Hilbert's sketch demonstrates how the magnetic needles on the surface of the plate
Sketch of the therelle with which Gilbert described the properties of terrestrial magnetism. Illustration from De Magnete (1600)

Hilbert’s experiments with small magnets attached to wooden planks placed on the water showed that the magnetic field has a vortex nature. This discovery led to William Hilbert’s new cosmological theory, according to which the Earth’s magnetic field caused it to rotate around its axis. 

Hilbert noticed that iron objects also acquire magnetic properties (magnetic induction) under the influence of a magnet. The famous English physicist properly separated the magnetic field from electricity, proving that although they are interrelated, they are still physically different by nature. 

Along with a number of essential discoveries, Hilbert’s work was full of many inaccuracies. In particular, Hilbert believed the “anima,” an analog of the planetary soul, was responsible for the rotation of the Earth around its axis, which he attributed to all cosmic objects in addition to the planet itself. In addition, Hilbert incorrectly compared the location of the Earth’s magnetic pole with its actual geographic pole. The fallacy of this theory prevented Hilbert from seeing the dependence of magnetic declination on time. The inaccuracy of Hilbert’s theory was proved in 1634 by one of the English physicist’s followers who, inspired by his work, questioned its truth without even having an idea. 

William Hilbert’s works on the nature of magnetism are among the earliest examples of scientific work on theoretical and experimental physics. They strongly impacted Hilbert’s followers, including Johannes Kepler and Newton. They drew many analogies between the gravitational force and Hilbert’s magnetism when first describing the phenomena of gravitation.