Guido da Vigevano

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Guido da Vigevano

fl. 1330s?

Italian Inventor and Physician

To judge from his writings and drawings, Guido da Vigevano (sometimes referred to as Guido Vigevano), was one of the most colorful figures of medieval technology. Along with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), he is credited for developing the concept of a tank, and is also cited as the man who first conceived the idea of an automobile.

Most of what scholars know about Guido comes from his masterwork, Texaurus regis Franciae, which he presented to Philip VI of France (r. 1328-1350) in 1335. By that time the numbered crusades to the Holy Land had long since ended with the fall of Acre (now in Israel) to the Muslims in 1291, but "holy wars" of one form or another would continue until a few years after the Turks' capture of Constantinople in 1453. Certainly many Europeans still expected to be called to a crusade in the Holy Land at any time, and it was for this purpose that Guido wrote his text.

The composition of Guido's great opus reveals his dual roles as physician and inventor. Hence the first nine folios are devoted to the subject of health, and provide the king with information regarding the preservation of his physical well-being in far-off Palestine. The bulk of the manuscript, however—14 folios—concerns the subject of military technology.

Guido's concepts of warfare, as they emerge from the pages of his startling text, reveal his genius. Because wood was scarce in the Near East, he suggested that Philip not rely on the landscape to provide him with siege equipment; rather, he should use prefabricated materials that could be separated into relatively small parts and carried on horseback. Anticipating the highly mobile style of warfare practiced by armies today, Guido devoted considerable attention to the subject of assembling and disassembling equipment, and to the proper joints and construction that would make such activities viable. He offered designs for folding pontoon bridges and boats that could be rapidly assembled and presented new concepts in body armor.

Guido also included two designs for selfpropelled wagons, forerunners of the automobile and (since they were armored machines of warfare) the tank. One would be driven by a crank, the other by a kind of highly sophisticated windmill-and-gear assembly. More than 150 years after Guido, Leonardo would create his own tank design, and no doubt the creator's artistry is one reason why his drawing is much more well-known: Guido, whose sketches lack perspective (a concept yet to be discovered at that time), was certainly no artist.

Nor were his far-fetched creations really adapted to the harsh pragmatism of late medieval Europe—though they might have been quite well-suited to the late nineteenth century, with its much more advanced technology. In any case, none of his machines got past the drawing board, because instead of going to the Holy Land, Philip in 1337 plunged France into a war with England. The conflict, which came to be known as the Hundred Years' War, would last until 1453, and by then Guido's enormously prescient designs would be all but forgotten.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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