Leonardo Da Vinci and Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionaries

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Most people would be hard pressed to see any connection between the Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci and the thirty-first President, Herbert Hoover.  The first individual conjures up images of the artist who painted the Mona Lisa while the latter individual is known as “The Great Humanitarian.”  Yet much of Da Vinci’s work was as a consultant and contractor creating military weapons for patrons and controlling waters.  Da Vinci sketched defensive fortifications preventing assaults on cities as well as more effective cannons and an early version of the machine gun.  His study of the Po Valley produced numerous explorations into practical hydraulics, harnessing the power of water.  His notebooks contain hundreds of ideas: some roughly sketched, and others more fully developed.  These ideas used simple machines to foresee air flight, bicycles, and improvements on Gutenberg’s printing press.  Hoover’s work, especially as Secretary of Commerce, also traversed many subjects from the development of waterways and the use of water for generating power (i.e. Hoover Dam) to regulating the airwaves for radio signals and the development of commercial aviation. Both men had an imperfect sense of the future, making them as Hoover biographer Kendrick A. Clements describes as an “imperfect visionary.”

Machines in Motion exhibit
Leonardo Da Vinci Machines in Motion, temporary exhibit now on display at the Hoover Museum.

From now until January 2, 2022, the Quarton Temporary Exhibit Gallery will host “Leonardo Da Vinci: Machines in Motion.”  The exhibit features twenty working models of inventions found in Da Vinci’s notebooks.  It provides greater appreciation and context for an individual usually thought of largely as an artist. Those students studying simply machines will get to see the practical applications of pulleys, wheel and axle, levers, wedges, inclined planes, screws, and gears.  The exhibit is an engaging way of combining history with science.

Herbert Hoover’s years as a mining engineer employed many of the concepts featured in Da Vinci’s machines.  The technology Hoover used to update mines and make them profitable used all the simple machines featured in the exhibit that were part of more sophisticated pumps, mining carts, elevators, and exhaust fans.  After visiting the Da Vinci exhibit, the visitor has a better appreciation of Hoover’s work as an engineer and Commerce Secretary featured in the permanent galleries.

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