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Did Leonardo da Vinci Invent the Bicycle?

By Monica Buck

Mona Lisa might be the piece of art the general public is most interested in, but cyclists have a different favourite. In 1974, a sketch of “Leonardo’s bike” was presented to the public as a part of the newly restored Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus. But as with all exciting discoveries, it pays off to be cautious.

A lot of countries competed for the chance to claim the prestigious invention of the bicycle in the past. Particularly prior to the First World War, many forgeries were created just to attribute the invention to one of these nations. These forgeries were disproved by proper scientific work later in history, and it is now established that the basic two-wheeler concept, on which all bicycles are based, was the work of Karl von Drais – a civil servant with a background of studying technology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

But at the time of publishing “Leonardo’s work” these forgeries were still very much alive. And they all bore the same mark – a myth created in 1890s’ France, claiming that a non-steerable two-wheeler preceded a proper bicycle. This myth, disproved by historian Jacques Seray in 1976, was widely acknowledged and copied by all forgers. Unfortunately, even “Leonardo’s bike” happens to be drawn this way.

But at the time of the discovery, nobody in Italy really cared about it. The Italians were ecstatic. After all, it looked like they had won the war for good. The next record of similarly advanced cycling design was dated 1855, nearly 400 years later.

The bicycle is on the backside of a sheet full of Leonardo’s original sketches. A 16th century conservator folded this sheet in half and glued it shut. Not because he wanted to rob us of the amazing bicycle, but because he found several crude outlines of penises on the back. These were probably drawn by one of Leonardo’s pupils. Or at least that is what Carlo Pedretti of the University of California believes.

The American art historian examined the very same pages in 1961, held them up to a strong light and found nothing but male genitalia on the back of the incriminated sheet. So in 1961 there was no bicycle, and in 1974 a bicycle appeared. How could it happen? The Codex Atlanticus was restored by Italian monks in the 1960s, and historians seem to agree that drawing a bicycle might be a thing a bored monk would do.

Chemical analysis of the sheet could provide a conclusive proof that the bike is a modern addition, but the restored pages have since been sealed in plastic to be preserved. The mounting evidence was enough to convince experts, though. So as much as we would like to believe the bike has been around for centuries, it looks like the whole premise is just bollocks.