You need to login before you download the free activities. You can register here.


Cracking da Vinci's other code

  • GCSE
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Problem solving
Topic: Forces

As an exhibition of Leonard da Vinci's work opens in London, this activity asks students to use their creativity to examine the drawings of some of his inventions. What do they show? How might they have worked?

14-16 How Science Works:
• How interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories:

Published: 19th September 2006
Reviews & Comments: 3

Learning objectives

Students will:
• Study drawings of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, and use their creativity and scientific knowledge to work out what they show and how they might have worked

Try the activity

You will need Acrobat Reader installed to open the activity sheets.

How science works
• 1b: How interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories

GCSE specification
Twenty First Century
• Ideas about science 3.2: an explanation cannot simply be deduced from data, but has to be thought up imaginatively to account for

Running the activity

Display page 1. Give students a few minutes to guess what the drawing shows. Then display page 2, which gives the answer – the drawing shows a four-person tank in action.

Page 3 – also for display – briefly tells the story of Leonardo da Vinci's life. It focuses on his creative mind and the way he used his artistic skills to benefit his science studies, and his anatomical studies and science experiments to benefit his art.

Page 4 sets the task. Ask students to work in groups to study the pictures and use their creativity to work out the purpose of each invention. Then ask them to use their scientific knowledge to explain how the invention works – you might like to ask each group to focus on one invention at this stage, and get them to feed back their ideas to the class.


1. Parachute - Leonardo's parachute consists of linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles.
[N.B. Skydiver Adrian Nicholas tested Leonardo's design, jumping from a hot-air balloon at 3000 metres. He found the ride to be smoother than the modern parachute. However weighing over 90 kg, it put the parachutist in danger of injury on landing.]

2. Helicopter - Two men would run on the lower level, which would spin round. The rotation would force the rotor to spin and to lift the helicopter off the ground

3. Glider – this works like a hang glider. A person hangs underneath it and can control the glider by using the cords.
[N.B. A glider based on this drawing was successfully flown by the paraglider Robbie Whittall. After 40 crashes, a tail was added to make it fly properly.]

4. Landing Gear - This is a detail from Leonardo's helicopter. The landing gear has a prop and a ladder. Both the prop and the ladder were retractable.

5. Machine Gun - This machine has three sets of barrels, on a rotating drum (you can see the triangle underneath the wheel, there is a set of guns on each side of the triangle.) When the first set of fired, the force of the explosion would pivot the guns down, bringing the next set of guns to the top, ready to be fired.

6. Water Lift - This invention has a water wheel, two Archimedes screws and two towers. The water wheel turns the screws. The screws turn pushing the water up to the highest tower. The tower is a tank for a piped water system.

News links

Museum of Science
Museum of Science, student-friendly site with opportunities to guess machine's identities and find out briefly how they work:
British Library
British Library site, with clear and detailed information about some of the inventions:
Science Museum
Details about, and pictures of, some of the elements of machines that da Vinci would have known about:
Aukland Museum
Information about da Vinci's machines, and when they were used (or not!):
Science Museum
Details about, and pictures of, some of the elements of machines that da Vinci would have known about:
Victoria and Albert Museum
Brief information about the exhibition in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Open Day work

Nov 15th, 2009

4 Star

Using these materials for OPEN DAY as a stand alone lesson worked really well. The pupils were engaged and enthusiastic and they also learnt more about Leonardo da Vinci. The web links to the Science Museum tool kit and accompanying lesson plans were very good to use. This then filled an 80 min lesson adequately and pupils produced some superb labelled diagrams of machines at work, in every day life.

Reviewer: Melissa Clarke

Cracking da Vinci's other code review

Jul 9th, 2009

5 Star

Also confused about backward writing on last slide. Is it the intention to use a mirror to decode it?
Good activity for cross curricular links with art or technology.

Reviewer: Melanie Wilks


Sep 29th, 2006

3 Star

Good fun activity- don't know if it will directly help students with the how science works questions but will engage them. Why are the words written backwards on the last page? Surely its better to remove them?

Reviewer: Mehul Shah