History of Engineering: The Renaissance Era

The general history of engineering can be divided in three phases: pre-scientific revolution, industrial revolution, and information revolution. The pre-scientific revolution era is marked by the contribution of Renaissance engineers, with Leonardo da Vinci as the most notable representative. Prior to the period of Renaissance, the design and construction phases were based on scale models created by artisans. With the changing role of the engineer, the technical drawing evolved as well.

The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) include sketches of machines that were constructed in the following eras of engineering, as well as such that are still considered to be impossible to bring to life. Da Vinci’s legacy of theories, visionary ideas, and rules is being explored by engineers hundreds of years later. In his notebooks, the artist makes progress to an inventor and a theoretician, through the dissection of mechanical devices and combination of elements in innovative ways. The complex spring motor is one of his key contributions to the modern era of engineering.

The engineers of the Renaissance were artists as well. Their case-by-case approach to the discipline led to the discovery of the techniques of cutaway, rotating, and exploded views, as well as the laws of perspective. The first builder who broke from the role of a provider of technical services was Filippo Brunelleschi, who completely engineered the dome of the Florence Cathedral. Although none of his drawings survived, Brunelleschi is still credited with the discovery of the mathematical laws of perspective.

Taccola (1382 – c. 1453) and Francesco di Giorgio (1439 – 1501) made the first steps towards the transformation of the engineer’s role into an author and illustrator. Both Taccola and Di Giorgio were engaged in hydraulic, military, and construction projects that determined the development of Siena. William Gilbert, mostly remembered for his book De Magnete (1600), is considered to be the first electrical engineer. Thomas Savery, another representative of the Renaissance era, built the first steam engine in 1698. In the 18th century, engineering was recognized as a profession, and the contributions made by early engineers marked the beginnings of industrialization.

Unlike modern engineers, the representatives of the Renaissance were not obligated to understand the implications of the globalization. Their progress was marked with the glorification of humanism, so they were creating works that appealed to both reason and emotion. Today, the process of engineering is being dehumanized through the efforts to balance the vulnerabilities caused by globalization and technology prevalence. Following the example of the Renaissance, the modern engineer needs to expand their horizons on technical matters by considering social, cultural, and economic trends.