Leonardo Takes a Deep Dive

The secret to Leonardo da Vinci's amazing artistry was his ability to see—and design—what others could not. His observational powers extended to sketching the whorls of air currents and capturing how birds in flight adjusted their wing feathers to catch a thermal and glide.

The world he saw around him was a source of endless fascination. Water was a particular obsession. He sketched it endlessly, even incorporating lakes into the background of his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

In his lifetime, da Vinci imagined ways to draw, describe and even dive under water. One intriguing innovation to accomplish that last: he designed scuba gear.

In 1500, Leonardo was working in Venice, Italy, the city of canals. Water, of course, is everywhere in the "water city,"" and a center of civic and commercial life. The Venetian Republic was then a major port city and wealthy center of trade. Pirates, spies and enemy ships lurked on land and offshore.

Da Vinci designed his scuba gear for sneak attacks on enemy ships from underwater. His leather diving suit was equipped with a bag-like mask that went over the diver's head. Around the nose area and attached to the mask were two cane tubes that led up to a cork diving bell floating on the surface.

Did it work? According to the Leonardo da Vinci's Inventions web site, "Air was provided from the opening of the tubes to the diver below. The mask also was equipped with a valve-operated balloon that could be inflated or deflated, so the diver could more easily surface or sink. Additionally, Leonardo da Vinci’s scuba gear invention incorporated a pouch for the diver to urinate in."

Because of the secrecy involved in its invention, da Vinci's idea for Scuba gear was little known until after his death, where the designs are detailed in his Codex Atlanticus.