Leonardo da Vinci was many things: a painter, an engineer, a creative thinker. He was also the inventor of the first man-made plastic, says Alessandro Vezzosi, director of Italy’s Museo Ideale. Vezzosi was flipping through some of the Renaissance man’s notes when he came across recipes for several mysterious mixtures. These mixtures would harden into a material that could be used to make nearly unbreakable knife handles, chessboards, jewelry, or cups and vases, Leonardo claimed.
Intrigued, Vezzosi tried out the recipes and ended up with a compound resembling Bakelite, one of the first synthetic polymers, which was widely used in the early 1900s. But whereas the production of Bakelite involves intricate molds and chemical processing, making Leonardo’s natural plastic required nothing more than painting layers of pigmented animal or vegetable glue onto various templates, including cabbage leaves, lettuce, and ox tripe. “It is ‘plastic material’ in the classical meaning of the word,” Vezzosi says. “It is extraordinary on an aesthetic, scientific, and technological level—and this was over 500 years ago.”