When Leonardo da Vinci wasnâ€™t painting portraits of medieval Italyâ€™s nobility, he was figuring out how to keep their drinks cold. … [A] prototype based on his design for a cooling machine â€” the earliest known attempt at refrigeration â€” has gone on display in Milan.
Leonardo scholar Alessandro Vezzosi said the artist invented the machine around 1492, when he was at the court of the Sforzas in Milan. His concept drawing depicts a sophisticated system of bellows that pump air into three leather chambers. These push the air briskly through 18 spouts into a central vacuum that holds the container to be cooled.
To a modern eye, Leonardoâ€™s device seems cumbersome â€” so much space for so little refrigeration. But we live in a world populated by a dazzling array of high-tech refrigerators and freezers; we stuff them with shopping carts full of food items that donâ€™t even need to stay cold. In the artistâ€™s day, there were only passive methods of cooling (natural ventilation, underground storage), and the machine would have been remarkable.
Itâ€™s possible that Leonardo built it during his lifetime. Vezzosi explained that since the artist also designed special water fountains for lavish banquets, â€œthereâ€™s no reason to rule out the possibility that this machine was also built in his laboratory.â€ It might have cooled anything from punch to sorbet (gelato was only invented a few decades later).