Why Bill Gates Bought Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Where does our era’s greatest philanthropist look for inspiration? The Renaissance.

Why Bill Gates Bought Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Bill Gates–builder of empires, incenter of toilets, changer of education systems–is one prolific polymath.


So perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s drawn to another of history’s most famous multitaskers.

How so? When we met with the nerd-philanthropist-titan earlier this year, he showed us his “endearingly wonky” side, a veteran geek given to graphs, gadgets, and world-changing aspirations. In a new profile on 60 Minutes, he opened up about an important personal inspiration and possession: one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

Called the Codex Leicester, Gates scooped up the notebook for $30.8 million in 1994, making it the most valuable manuscript in the world. If you want to play with it, check out the British Library’s digitized version. But why does Gates, who’s at work reinventing the nuclear reactor, keep coming back to a 500-year-old journal?

“It’s an inspiration that one person–off on their own, with no feedback, without being told what was right or wrong–that he kept pushing himself,” Gates says, “that he found knowledge itself to be the most beautiful thing.”

The notebooks show an incredible mind at work: In the video, you can see da Vinci’s approximations of the movement of water, looking for the roots of turbulence. The sketches showcase the inventor’s brilliance–and more endearingly, how Gates, as his friend Warren Buffett would like to see, admires his hero.

Da Vinci and Gates, of course, are not that uncommon: As 60 Minutes reporter Charlie Rose observes, the Microsoft founder is “similarly obsessed with understanding the world,” as evinced by his rows of books on meteorology, geology, philosophy, and fertilizer.


Why would a billionaire want to know so much? Gates, like other innovators, sees the intersectionality of learning: “The more you learn,” he says, “the more you have a framework that the knowledge fits into.”

Bottom Line: Connect with your heroes. And maybe buy their notebooks if you’ve got the scratch.

[Vitruvian Man via Wikimedia]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.