Categories: Features

Laser scientist who proved that Leonardo da Vinci didn’t invent the bicycle turns 80

Cycle historian Dr. Hans-Erhard Lessing has celebrated his 80th birthday.

The German laser scientist has written many books on cycle history – including a definitive one published by MIT Press of America – but perhaps his greatest achievement is the comprehensive 1997 debunking of the myth that Leonardo da Vinci invented the bicycle. This is a myth that still gets published today. 

The crude bicycle-like sketch once attributed to Da Vinci was "discovered" in 1974 during the restoration of Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus.

Leonardo Da Vinci – scientist, engineer, architect, artist – was ahead of his time, a visionary, brilliant. But he didn’t invent the bicycle. A shame, especially for Italians, who would like to trump the French.

In August 1997, Dr. Lessing wrote a paper for the International Cycle History Conference that showed beyond reasonable doubt that Leonardo never sketched the Draisine-type bicycle attributed to him.

Lessing’s work reached a mainstream audience via an October 1997 article in New Scientist. This article was subsequently picked up by media organisations around the world and fingers were soon pointed at the most likely forger, a highly-placed restoration academic associated with the Codex Atlanticus clean-up.

This Italian academic never admitted any guilt (Lessing didn’t directly implicate him) but later research showed that two inks on the page said to contain the Leonardo bicycle design dated from post-1880 and post-1920.

Such proof has not always filtered through to the mainstream press, Italian bike makers or exhibition organisers. For instance, in 2004 Carlo Barbieri, curator of ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: A Curious Genius’, an exhibition of the designs described in the Codex Atlanticus, told Reuters: "Leonardo was beyond time. He designed [diving suits, a bicycle and a car] 500 years before they could even be built.

"Even the bicycle, is almost exactly like our modern version. It has the spokes and the chains, the only thing missing is the means to change the wheel direction."

A full-size model of the ‘Leonardo bicycle’ was sited next to a modern bicycle at the exhibition, which went on to tour the world.

In 2004, Italian bike maker Ernesto Colnago made the same mistake. On the Colnago stand at the EICMA trade show in Milan that year pride of place was taken by the limited-edition, carbon-fibre President LdV, named after Leonardo da Vinci.

At the show, and in press releases, Colnago claimed that Leonardo was the "inventor of the bicycle."

"Da Vinci was a genius … he came up with the basic concept of the bicycle five hundred years ago," Colnago told at the show.

And even today there are frequently claims made that the bicycle was invented by Da Vinci. The photograph of Dr. Lessing below shows him with a modern childrens’ cycle history book which perpetuates the hoax. 

Lessing, formerly professor of physics at the University of Ulm, is co-author, with Tony Hadland, of Bicycle Design, an encyclopaedia of cycle history and published in 2014 by the MIT Press. Thinking, instead of Italy, that the bicycle was “invented” in Scotland or that Messrs Sturmey and Archer designed the first Sturmey-Archer gear? Read this book, and think again.

Showing the breadth of history covered in the book Bicycle Design’s cover features an 1817 Draisine (a balance bike with two wheels in line, and front wheel steering) next to the Lotus 108, as used by Chris Boardman to win the 4,000-metre sprint in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Lessing is the biographer of Robert Bosch (Bosch, the car-parts maker that now also makes e-bike motors, was started by Robert Bosch from his bicycle) and draisine inventor Karl Drais.

Lessing was born in 1938 in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. He studied physics at the Technical University of Stuttgart – his 1963 diploma was one of the first laser experiments in Germany.

He later turned to writing about bicycles. His first book, published in 1978, was Das Fahr-radbuch  – The Bicycle Book. It became a best-seller with 120,000 copies sold.

In 2002 Lessing made the connection between Karl Drais’s creation of his “running machine” with the Mt Tambora eruption in Indonesia in 1815, which led to a climate catastrophe in Europe with horses dying in 1816 and 1817, hence the need for a horse-substitute. 

Happy birthday, Dr. Lessing!


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