One of my favorite electrical engineering professors in my post-graduate studies was absolutely convinced that Leonardo da Vinci was never born. He was placed here.

Whenever we wanted to avoid a “pop” quiz (which predictably took place on the same day every week), someone in class would simply ask the professor about his da Vinci theories. The class had nothing to do with historic figures. It was hard-core engineering. The mathematics of electromagnetic wave propagation through a substrate. 

The professor, literally a rocket scientist and one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met, in or out of academia, would start teaching us, not about electromagnetic wave propagation, but about his theories on da Vinci not having been born. Off he’d go, postulating and graphing chronological timelines of da Vinci’s life. Success! Yet another pop quiz avoided!

My professor said that da Vinci’s life’s work was as well-documented as any in history. His birth is commonly assumed to be April 15, 1452, but no real historical documentation supports that, he would say. He had no surname, and was named after a city, Vinci, not a father.

 Leonardo kept detailed journals, but the only documented account he made of his early life was the single childhood memory where he recalled a kite floating over his cradle, the kite’s tail brushing his face. An omen.

“He never had an earthly father,” the professor proclaimed, white board marker thrust in the air for emphasis. Apparently, his existence began at age fourteen when da Vinci started an art apprenticeship. 

So at age 14, he became an apprentice. At age 20, he was declared a master artist. And philosopher. And engineer. And doctor. He disappeared from history again for two years, only to return to paint The Adoration of the Magi, and the Mona Lisa.

He invented and built musical instruments, then played them as well as any master musician. He was a botanist, geologist, astronomer and cartologist. He designed, invented, created the impossible – things that couldn’t be made until centuries later, when technology finally caught up with him. 

He didn’t just study things, he mastered them. He used his ability to visualize flows and hydraulics to invent machines to make other machines. He invented the helicopter. Then created military strategies to use them in war. In the late 1400s. Historians have called him superhuman. One who transcends nature. Inspired by Heaven, not by man.

One of the best examples of his advanced thinking is his study of the heart and the flow of blood through the human body. He called the heart a muscle, and believed it operated like a propulsion device, where valves open and close through the generation of eddies and whirlpools, pulling blood in and out with each heartbeat. That was almost 500 years ago. Medical science visually confirmed this fact in my lifetime.

If we graphed the contributions by people throughout history, da Vinci’s data point would be literally off the curve. Like in a room in a building at the far end of the block. Shamefully, we in engineering often label a data point that doesn’t fit a predictable curve as, “obviously in error”.

There’s always one who skews the curve!

In the words of my favorite professor, “Unfortunately, it’s too late for a pop quiz today, but remind me to surprise you with one next week”.