The Lost Napkins of Leonardo Da Vinci

Is the future hiding somewhere in a 500-year-old notebook?

Rosheim also observes that the drawings—simple motion studies with a mildly whimsical air (think: Leonardo Milne/A.A. Da Vinci)—might well have helped inform Orville and Wilbur's experiments.

Such fancy provenance hasn't always been within Rosheim's reach. "When I first came here," he says, "I lived in these crummy, one-room apartments. I'd keep all my tools in a box and work on the kitchenette counter when I got a chance."

His first big break arrived when NASA came calling in 1987, the year he formed Ross-Heim with David Jasper—still the company's CEO and Rosheim's business manager. Recently, they negotiated their first $1 million contract, supplying the Omni Wrist III to the Missile Defense Agency, with Lockheed as the company's subcontractor. Now ensconced in a spacious colonial home in Highland Park, the inventor has plenty of studio space and a couple of offices, as well as ample room for his ever-expanding library.

Nick Vlcek

Though the 19th-century editions are cool, I can't help but notice that the ones from the late 20th are bigger, and often more impressively bound. "This is what I bought at 4:00 in the morning," Rosheim says, referring to a famed 1996 auction at Christie's London, won in pre-eBay real-time, on the phone.

"The Codici Atlantico." Suddenly, his voice gets all Barry White. "So named for its oceanic size."

Before the orchestra kicks in and the book turns into a bed, he regains his normal mien. "This is one of 12 volumes. Together, they weigh over 800 pounds," says Rosheim. "I used to use the copy at the U of M's library. The little old man who'd have to carry them would see me coming and go, 'Oh, no!' I'd order all 12."

Given the 1973 tome's monumental size and impossibly deep brown leather binding, Rosheim got an incredible deal. Sure, $1,200 sounds like a lot of money, but it's a lot less than the $20,000 or more the same edition goes for now. Plus, dividing 1,200 by 800 reveals that dude only paid a buck-fifty a pound. That's a much better value than airport paperbacks.

Despite the sheaves of evidence surrounding us, Rosheim hardly restricts his curiosity to Leonardo. He's an avid admirer of artists ranging from Jackson Pollack to outsider icon Henry Darger, as well as sculptor and House of Balls proprietor Allen Christian, whom he calls "a great guy."

Rosheim's artistic activities aren't limited to technical drawing, either. "I've worked in oils a lot," he says, "done lots of portraits. But I've always felt that a career in art was less likely to yield the creature comforts. The politics of the technology world and the art world are similar. But, in the technology world, if you pound hard enough, your product is cheaper, eventually the gatekeepers come around. In art, sometimes that process doesn't even start until after you're dead. It's a cruel world."

Given Rosheim's wide-ranging interests, it's hardly surprising that only one of three books he's written—1989's Robot Wrist Actuators—is all that specialized. Published in 2001, Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics traces advances in robotics from ancient Greece through the foreseeable future, touching on everyone from Leo to Nikola Tesla, not to mention himself. While modest in demeanor, Rosheim appears to be abundantly aware of his achievements; the word "anthrobotics" itself is a Rosheim coinage now widely used in the industry (it refers to humanoid robots).

Like his first two books, Leonardo's Lost Robots, published earlier this year by Springer, costs quite a bit more per pound than his Codici Atlantico did—unless he just pulls a copy out of the display at the MCBA shop and hands it to you. Half mystery, half science for the layperson, and all art book, it tells the story of how Rosheim solved three Da Vinci-generated puzzles that baffled experts for centuries: the "Robot Knight," the "Bell-Ringer," and the "Robot Cart."

The book is written in the highly evocative, non-academic style that informs Rosheim's speech. "Leo left behind quite a few drawings of machines with little or no text," he explains. "Essentially napkin drawings." With Pedretti's encouragement and occasional assistance, Rosheim figured out what three of the machines were supposed to do and how they worked. He also built working models of them, all represented in the book and MCBA show alike.

One of the book's images, a drawing of the "Robot Cart," sits in the case we're looking at, right next to the leather-bound Codici Atlantico. It's a page from the book's unbound first edition, published in 1894.

"The photogravure technique they used for this really hasn't been equaled," says the inventor, gesturing. I get the impression that he's maybe a little frustrated by not being able to actually touch the book. "You look at it under a magnifying glass, and it's not pixilated, it's not screened. It's just like looking at the real thing."

Even more real is the thing that hangs just above us: a wood-and-metal model of the cart itself. Less than two feet long and nearly square, the three-wheeled vehicle suggests a getaway car for portly Renaissance midgets. "All you get from Leonardo is this top view," he says of the drawing, "which gives no indication of what the undercarriage is like, or how the cart worked. I had to rotate that top view in my mind's eye to figure out what was underneath."

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