Master of all

Leonardo da Vinci was the creator of natural plastic

Published: Monday 31 May 2004

Master of all

-- (Credit: Photographs: Museo Ideale)Leonardo da Vinci was far more than a great artist. He is celebrated as the inventor of numerous mechanical devices like robots and alarm clocks. Recently, another chapter has been added to the saga of his accomplishments. Alessandro Vezzosi, an Italian academician, has found that the sorcerer was also the creator of natural plastic. Vezzosi, an ardent fan of da Vinci, made the discovery while wading through the artist's documents housed in his workplace -- the Museo Ideale, a museum located in Vinci, the maestro's hometown.

Most of Da Vinci's scientific and technical observations are found in his handwritten manuscripts, of which over 4,000 pages survive. The wizard had planned to publish them as an encyclopaedia, but like many of his projects, this too failed. Many of the manuscripts, are difficult to read, as Da Vinci's handwriting had changed over the years, from the elegant, ornate forms of his youth to irregular, abbreviated, and at times sloppy lettering during his last years.

Moreover, the documents are written in the mirror-image script. Da Vinci usually wrote with his left hand, filling the page from right to left. Only when viewed with a mirror, the handwriting takes a normal appearance, and hence it is called the mirror-image script.

A lot of the scripts survive in their original form. But some, like the Codex Arundel and Codex Atlanticus, were compiled after da Vinci's death from his notebooks. The instructions to make the material similar to plastic were found in manuscripts found in France, Codex Arundel (housed in the British Library of London), Codex Forster (found in London's Victoria and Albert Museums) and Codex Atlantic (kept in Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italy).

The Renaissance master obtained effects similar to plastic and unbreakable glass by "clothing with colours" many materials, ranging from the back of the stomach of a heifer or a ox, the leaves of wrinkle lettuce, paper, little canes and a large Milanese wrinkled leaf of cabbage. "He talks of a mixture. He combined colours with animal or vegetable glues, sometimes adding organic fibres to create his plastic. Indeed, he synthesised a chemical very similar to acetone. But to do so, he used non-toxic, organic substances," says Vezzosi.

Following the manuscripts' instructions, Vezzosi applied many layers of colours mixed with vegetable or animal glues on the materials used by da Vinci. "We used pigments similar to those applied by Leonardo. They ranged from traditional oil paint to any kind of organic materials," reveals Vezzosi.

As the materials dried, he obtained a product similar to bakelite, a plastic that made a splash in the early 1900s. "The successful reproduction of Leonardo's natural polychrome plastic proved that the Florentine genius created the first human-made plastic long before Alexander Parkes invented parkesine (an organic material derived from cellulose in 1862) and Leo Hendrik Baekeland created bakelite in 1909," asserts Vezzosi.

Da Vinci's material is somewhere between natural and chemical plastic. It is similar to the presently used phenolic resin, therefore it could have been used to create knife handles, salt cellars, containers and necklaces. They could also be used to create cups or vases that if thrown on the floor don't break. "It's interesting that the sorcerer used layers to create unbreakable objects. These layers act as binding agents. For instance, linseed oil polymerises slowly on contact with the air to form waterproof, unbreakable polymer. The findings once again prove Da Vinci's great innovative input. But ironically it did not add to our knowledge of plastic," says Alessandro Bagno, professor at Italy-based Padova University's department of organic chemistry.

According to Vezzosi, the instructions to create plastic are just some of the lesser-known discoveries in the surviving pages of da Vinci's notes. The scripts may have much more information in store, which could make life far easier for humans.

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