Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Renaissance man

In the year 1482, young Leonardo da Vinci sent Lodovico Sforza, duke of Milan, a letter in which he offered his services as inventor and engineer.

"Most illustrious Lord," he wrote. "I am emboldened to put myself in communication with Your Excellency, in order to acquaint you with my secrets, thereafter offering myself at your pleasure effectually to demonstrate at any convenient time all those matters which are in part briefly recorded below."

The document is well known, but a hitherto missing page of the letter has come to my attention, and I make it public here for the first time. I have rendered some terms both in the original Italian and English.

Leonardo writes: "It will behoove Your Excellency to note that all of the aforementioned instruments and devices can be categorized as mercanzia dura (hardware). However, I am also able to provide mercanzia soffice (software) of diverse and sundry sorts. I foresee the day when the control of informazione will be more important to Your Excellency's wealth and power than all machines, fortresses and palaces."

"Presente! (Don't miss the boat!)," writes Leonardo.

He professes to know how to construct macchini personale per cacolare, which, as best as I can understand his meaning, would be similar to modern computers. However, he informs Lodovico that these machines can best be made by others, while he will confine himself to the sviluppo (development) of the corresponding mercanzia soffice.

"There are molta moneta (big bucks) to be made in prodotti d'informazione (information products)," he predicts confidently.

One long passage in the new document refers to something Leonardo has invented called Finestre (Windows). It is difficult to make out exactly what he has in mind, but Finestre seems somehow related to making his machines easier to use. "As easy as watching a pomo (apple) fall from a tree," he writes.

Another invention, which Leonardo refers to as la rete (the net), is presumably a way of connecting many macchini personale per cacolare into a single larger entity. While the details of this idea are not clear, he tells Lodovico that success in this endeavor will mean molta, molta, molta moneta.

Certainly the most extraordinary idea to be found anywhere in Leonardo's writings is his proposal to put hundreds of piccole lune (little moons) into orbit around the Earth, which would be used to reflect la rete from place to place. He assures Lodovico that if this is accomplished, Milan will become the world's luogo caldo per informazione (data hot spot) and the duke will achieve a lucrative presa strangolare (monopoly) in the business of communications.

Leonardo concludes: "All of these things can be readily accomplished at the request of Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility."