Leonardo da Vinci's Lion Robot

While we may think of robots as a 20th century invention that have come roaring to life today, it is astonishing to imagine that first robot creation may have been 500 years ago.

And, of course, Leonardo da Vinci would be the inventor!

When da Vinci first moved to France by invitation of French King François I in 1516, he was hired to be the court painter, philosopher and architect and engineer. He was even given his own castle in the French countryside to "think, work and dream."

One of Leonardo's lesser known talents was as a multimedia events producer—think of him as the George Lucas of his day. Among his inventions was a series of mechanical lions—sketches and notes for these have been found in one of the polymath's notebooks.

Accounts at the time show he may have made three such lions, including one that could rear on its hind legs and present lilies (the fleur de lys is a symbol of French royalty). It was designed for a royal spectacle in Milan for the previous French king. A second lion, according to accounts, was somehow self-powered, and could walk and move its head. Presenting it to François I, the lion’s body opened and offered lilies to the king.

No description of how da Vinci powered the lion to walk survives.

Carlo Pedretti, a Leonardo scholar in charge of a recent exhibition, including reconstructions of the third robot lion wrote: "The irony of the whole thing is that there is not a single hint in Leonardo's manuscripts of this (which may be his) greatest technological invention.... Imagine, to have a lion walk. This is top technology!"