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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Leonardo da Vinci devised an early design for a diving suit whilst working as a military engineer. His bold plan involved divers attacking enemy ships from the depths of the ocean.


Da Vinci's diving suit and scuba inventions came during his time living in the Italian city of Venice. At that point it appeared that the region was about to be invaded by Turk forces, towards the end of the 15th century. Leonardo was requested to give local forces a competitive advantage through new technology, and he set about brainstorming new ideas.

Ultimately, the Turks would be repelled using existing battlefield techniques, and so Leonardo's ideas were not required. Some even found his work extraordinary, outrageous and unrealistic when first unveiled, though in more recent years many of these ideas have been proven to have had significant potential.

Leonardo wanted to create a battalion that was equally comfortable on land or in the water, and who could potentially remain submerged indefinitely. His methods were so groundbreaking that rejection was almost inevitable, but his ideas would be taken on by other inventors in later centuries.

Leonardo's role as an inventor was heavily reduced by his inability to turn any of his designs into commercial projects, used in the real world. Instead, many would be taken on as theories in later generations, even later centuries, and eventually turned into workable products after a number of amendments had been applied. This should not distract from the importance of his work, however, and science itself is essentially an evolution of thinking.

The Renaissance Man worked on a variety of military equipment, both on the offensive and defensive sides of battle. His diving suits were amongst the most 'out-there' ideas, and became even harder to sell as an idea than his flying machines, even though they would later be proved to work.

The purpose of his diving suits was to allow the Venetian army to attack enemy ships from below, punching holes into the hulls, and sinking them. With control of the seas being so important in warfare at this time, such an invention could have been crucial, were it to work effectively. Ultimately, these ideas were not needed, and Venice was successfully defended through more conventional means.

Leonardo da Vinci remains one of the key figures from the Italian Renaissance, and perfectly captures the essence of this influential period in European history. He impressed in a wide range of disciplines, with invention and engineering being just one part of that. His legacy is also just as strong today as it ever has been.

This article examines Leonardo's contributions towards the inventions of diving suits and scuba equipment, highlighting some of the drawings that he produced, particularly whilst living in Venice. We discuss why he was asked to come up with battlefield inventions, and how effective they would be. We also consider whether they might have worked, if we applied some more modern materials and technologies to his original ideas.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a Diving Suit?
  3. How did Da Vinci's Diving Suits work?
  4. The History of the Diving Suit
  5. Da Vinci's Work as a Military Engineer
  6. References

What is a Diving Suit?

Diving suits protect a diver from the surrounding environment. They can be used to overcome atmospheric and temperature issues that we all face when entering water. The precise design required is therefore dependent on the needs of the diver, themselves.

Da Vinci's own design would clearly not have protected anyone at great depth, nor was intended for this purpose. It was for divers at relatively low depths to be able to breathe comfortably, and temperature may not have been much of an issue, either. For those looking to go much deeper, they would require an atmospheric diving suit that would not appear until as late as the 18th century.

The earliest working prototypes would be used to investigate the many wreckages that existed in the 18th century, making the owner very rich thanks to a plethora of salvaged luxury goods. This offers an interesting twist, considering that Da Vinci initially set about creating something for the purpose of actually sinking ships in the first place.

How did Da Vinci's Diving Suits work?

Whilst Leonardo's diving suits were by no means aesthetically pleasing, there was considerable thought put into how those wearing them would cope under water. This was a military product, after all, and so effectiveness was most important, rather than fashion concerns.

Pipes would run from the suit up to a floating device, similar to a buoy. This gave the diver direct access to air, though would have limited the depth by which they could swim down. For this reason, Da Vinci re-thought the design later on, installing bags of air upon the suit, hung around the waist, which could then be accessed from any depth. That alternative seemed a better idea, but would have then limited the time by which the diver could be submerged.

Some have suggested that the floating ball would be made from cork, to ensure it stays afloat, and that the pipes leading down to the diver were constructed from cane. They may also have been to return to the surface to re-inflate the bag of air, with the second design, just as a submarine might return to the surface from time to time.

Additionally, their tools would also be hung around their waste, most of which would be for the purposes of carrying out their assault on the ship's hull. He also devised an additional plan for those needing to urinate, suggesting that he had switched his plan to allowing divers to be under water for much longer periods of time.

The suit came with a facemask and googles, allowing the diver to see what he was doing. The overall design resembles closely the later diving suits that would appear in the following centuries. It seems that his ideas were simply too bold for 15th century minds, whilst some of his other inventions failed because of the lack of light weight materials available at the time.

The History of the Diving Suit

Whilst Da Vinci put forward his ideas for a diving suit in the late 15th century, it would not be until the 18th century that workable prototypes would appear. A number of British inventors succeeded in producing suits that could withstand pressure at high depths of the sea. These were then used to spend time around a number of ship wrecks, of which there were many at the time.

These advancements would then evolve throughout the 19th century, as new features would be added, and a greater comfort was offered to the diver. It would then be within the 20th century that diving became more of a leisure activity, meaning simpler methods for shallow dives were needed and these continue to evolve today, with lighter, more functional materials being developed.

Da Vinci's Work as a Military Engineer

Leonardo headed to Venice at the turn of the 15th/16th century and offered help in the war against the Turks. He devised several different plans on how victory could be achieved but his ideas were considered too outlandish. He did help design a number of weapons, however, as well as his diving suit.

Leonardo also helped in surveillance, producing maps from the top-down view that we are all familiar with today. He was entirely respected as an intelligent, free-thinker, but the Venetian army was able to claim victory without his inventions needing to be made. With time of the essence, resources were placed elsewhere and his ideas were mothballed.

It would only be many centuries later that items appeared that beared a similarity to his earlier ideas for tanks, catapults, submarines, machine guns and other items. Da Vinci enthusiasts have since proven the viability of a number of his designs, whilst others have been carefully adapted to work, in combination with modern engineering principles.