Leonardo the Techie

Technical people often fall victim to stereotyping. Once their technical gifts become obvious, technical people may be regarded as being capable only of technical work, and somehow disabled for all other purposes. The terms “techie” and “nerd” are sometimes used to cast aspersions against the technically adept. Yet my impression after years of working with technical people is that they are more likely than most to have a wide variety of interests and abilities. Indeed, if anyone in our time deserves the title of “Renaissance man,” he is more likely than not to be a “techie”.

Consider the case of a true and literal Renaissance man. Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines, both winged and helicopter style. His plans for a car used internal springs to drive gears. He designed a type of chain that resembles those used in twentieth century machinery. His flyer spindle resembles those later used in textile manufacturing. His design for a steam-driven machine was the first instance of a piston moving within a cylinder. He designed mortars with projectiles intended to shatter into fragments on impact. He designed the world’s first military tank, which had armor and a cannon and was to be propelled by eight men turning cranks to drive gears within. He studied the optics of mirrors and he sketched plans for life preservers and floating shoes. He designed mills for rolling sheet metal; a centrifugal pump; and a new type of oil lamp, using a water-filled glass globe to magnify the light. He failed to develop the field of electricity and electronics, but we should forgive him. He was, after all, born in 1452.

Did Leonardo’s technical inventiveness disable him for all other purposes? No, indeed. Like many technical people, he had strong gifts and interests in music. He was both a singer and a flute player. According to the sixteenth century art historian Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo was also noted for his physical strength: “with his right hand he could bend the clapper of a knocker or a horse-shoe as if they had been of lead.” And oh, yes, Leonardo could paint a little.

Our lifetime has seen a flowering in computers and electronics that could be called a Renaissance if this were not its first birth. Thanks to the inventiveness of many of our contemporaries, computers and electronics are revolutionizing business and manufacturing and promise to revolutionize education by making possible simulations of all manner of physical, biological, and social processes. Computers and electronics are also providing new vigor to music and art and some wild experimentation in literature. Technical people are making mighty contributions in all these fields.

The next time you hear someone stereotyping technical people, remind him of Leonardo’s technical side and, with due modesty, point out your own diverse activities and those of your technical friends. You might even invite them over to Steve Ciarcia’s to listen to fine music in his entertainment room or take a ride in an exotic sports car and above all to sample his fine cuisine. Never miss a chance to shatter the tiresome stereotype of the one-dimensional techie.

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