The Lost Napkins of Leonardo Da Vinci

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

Mark Rosheim bounds into the Minnesota Center for Book Arts' Star Tribune Gallery like he owns the place. He does—in the sense that every bookshelf and vitrine in the expansive space harbors his stuff. The world-class robotics whiz and curator of "The Technology of Leonardo Da Vinci" possesses the most spectacular collection of facsimile Da Vinci manuscripts in the Midwest. Beautifully bound and printed, these collections of Leonardo's writings and drawings are so huge that the room can only hold a few dozen.

The silver flight case that Rosheim carries is appreciably more compact. "I brought this along so you could play with one," he says as we take a couple of seats near the window. Lean and lanky, a shock of reddish-brown hair setting off his olive-drab fatigue jacket and black jeans, Rosheim pulls from the case what appears to be a sculpture made of gray metal and sets it on the table between us. I recognize the gizmo from Rosheim's company website; it's the Omni-Wrist III, one of the robot joints and limbs that's won Ross-Heim Designs, Inc. contracts with NASA, the DoD, and WET Design. The last isn't a government agency, by the way; it's the company that built the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"There are only three unique parts in it," he says, as I push the deceptively simple-looking mechanism around in a circle, "which makes it a lot more economical to manufacture than other robot wrists. It's also a hell of a lot easier to repair."

A pair of nearby bookcases holds another specimen of the wrist, along with its ancestors and cousins, situated chronologically among the notebooks Rosheim has maintained since his early teens. "I grew up studying Leonardo," the inventor says of his childhood in Tama, Iowa. "I was a very unhappy and frustrated conventional student"—a bit of understatement; Rosheim dropped out of high school when he was a freshman or sophomore (he can't remember which) —"so I spent my time with him. I loved his drawing style. I spent a year learning it, the shading in the background to bring out the object and all that."

Pointing toward the upper left-hand shelf, he continues: "Here's a notebook from 1973, and another from 1976." Even Rosheim's earliest drawings show considerable sophistication—and more than a little prescience. The tentacled spheroids in one wrist study look like cousins of The Matrix's "sentinels."

His three-dimensional work from the time is a bit more primitive. "When I started making models, I didn't have any money, so I used croquet balls, cue balls, whatever I could find."

Rosheim moved here in 1978—the year he applied for his first patent; he holds 22 of them now—to take a job at Honeywell. Soon after, he started attending classes at the U of M. His models began to grow sharper, his vision more original.

Some three decades later, he keeps pounding away. More than 186,000 people viewed his manuscripts and inventions last summer at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, in an exhibition titled, "Leonardo Da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius." Among this geeky mob was a man not publicly recognized for his curiosity.

"There were two main components to the exhibition: 'Leonardo's Workshop' and 'Modern-day Leonardos,'" Rosheim explains. "Apparently, [George W. Bush] asked to see the work of an American modern-day Leonardo, and they took him over to my area. I'm flattered that anybody is interested in looking at my work. I'm glad that he liked it, I guess."

Like John Updike, Edith Head, and Michael Caine after him, Leonardo Da Vinci proved that quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive. The 16th-century polymath practiced architecture and mechanical engineering at least as well as he painted and sculpted, along with exploring aerodynamics, psychology, and a host of other disciplines that didn't even have names. Not only was he often ahead of his time; some of his work might be ahead of ours. Luckily for posterity, he documented everything he did, saw, or thought, at least for a while. But of the roughly 21,000 notebook pages he filled, only around 7,000 survive.

"The originals are all at the Florence Museum," says Rosheim as we negotiate the maze of cases. "Facsimile editions started appearing in the late 19th century. Here's an interesting one," he says, "the Codex on the Flight of Birds. Came out in 1898, I think."

The man who helped initiate Rosheim into the mysteries of fine Vinciana was Carlo Pedretti, a Leonardo scholar and collector extraordinaire, and a professor emeritus at UCLA. The book before us is bound in 3/4 leather with marbled boards, and Pedretti and Rosheim both realized that its purchase was a coup. "See those little pencil notations," Rosheim says, pointing toward the margin of a particular page. "I got this [book] from a dealer in New York. The seller had told me there were pencil markings, but when I get it, I realize right off that they're scholarly notations. I look in the front of the book, and there's a dedication from the publisher to Baron Henri de Geymuller, a huge Leonardo scholar in his time. These are Geymuller's notations. I was immediately offered double what I paid for it, by Carlo."

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.

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."

To accomplish this near-impossible feat, Rosheim gave the aforementioned eye a major kick in the ass by looking at hundreds of other drawings by Leonardo, hoping to trigger an epiphany. "I'd given up," he says, "when the answer finally came to me. It just kind of oozed up out of my subconscious. You program it with this array of cams."

I should confess that I wouldn't know a cam from a dram: Apparently, the word refers to the projection on a rotating shaft or wheel, which triggers another part of a machine. I am given to understand that cars are full of the things. I could defend my ignorance by pointing out that I do not drive—but then neither did Leonardo.

Another of Rosheim's realizations, Leonardo's "Robot Knight"—documented, like the "Bell-Ringer," in yet another case a few feet from where we're standing—ended up in July's Vanity Fair, along with a photo of Rosheim in his studio. "While I was working on my second book," he says, gesturing toward the piece, "I visited Carlo in L.A. He asked me to write a paper for a journal he edits, the Academia Leonard Vinci. The technical description of the Robot Knight in The Da Vinci Code is stolen from that paper. Here's Dan Brown in a limo. My photo has a lathe. It's not fair."

He puts just enough wounded child in this last line to indicate that he's joking, which is good, as it's Brown who should be jealous. Granted, Brown's potboiler has probably sold a million tons of books. But the inventor has the satisfaction of being that rare independent scholar who's widely respected by academics and casual readers.

"Leonardo's Lost Robots is well into its second printing," he says as we stroll beneath a complete robot torso with arms, hands, and head, all designed by Rosheim. He adds, "It's scheduled to go into paperback next year. The Leonardo thing is a hobby run amok, but I have no regrets. The Robot Knight, the Bell-Ringer, the Robot Cart: They're all perfect machines. There's no waste, nothing superfluous. They do so much in such a compact space. They're so elegant. It's beautiful stuff. It's kind of a privilege to have worked on them."

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest