Biomimicry: A History

by Wyatt Schreiner

view of spaceWhile humans have only studied biomimicry for the past half century, the earth has been developing efficient methods of life for 3.8 billion years. Our planet is the oldest and wisest teacher we could ask for. However throughout our extremely short history we have not exactly seen eye to eye with the earth. It is because of this that we are experiencing changes in the climate that will prove detrimental to our future. This project is designed to open the minds of the reader to a new form of innovation. Biomimicry, innovation inspired by the natural processes of earth. This timeline highlights examples of biomimicry that hopefully enlighten you and inspire anew way to create.
In the following video David J. Staley, 1 Ohio State University Associate Professor of History, is interviewed by history major Wyatt Schreiner (Ohio State Univ. Class of 2018) about biomimicry.

Pre Industrial Revolution

Rock-Cut Architecture: 6000 BCE

Buddhist templeCaves have been used as shelter since the monolithic era 6000 BCE, so it makes perfect sense that in India Buddhist temples and shrines were actually carved into caves and mountain sides. These temples eventually doubled as trade posts on the Silk Road. 

Silk: 3000 BCE

silk wormsSilk is one of the first examples of biomimicry that we see in human history. Use of the material is dated back to 4000 BC, making it one of the first fabrics invented by humans. It is common knowledge that silk comes from silkworms, and the Chinese were the first civilization to learn from the brilliant worm. This invention was the reason that the Silk Road got its name. Silk could be traded for its weight in gold during the times where only the Chinese had the weaving strategy mastered. 6,000 years later we are still using silk all around the world.

Pyramids: 2470 BCE

a pyramid-shaped mountainWhile there are hundreds of theories about who or what actually constructed the Egyptian pyramids, until an extraterrestrial force is proven to have played a part, one would assume they were man made. And one theory that makes sense is that they were designed after mountains. 

Umbrellas: 3 CE

lotus leavesThe first Chinese umbrellas were invented 1700 years ago by a man named Lu Ban, who is now revered in Chinese history. The idea for the umbrella sprouted when Lu Ban saw children using lotus leaves to shield themselves from the rain. He decided to mimic the flexibility and effectiveness of the leaf and create a product of his own. The first umbrellas were, in fact, made of silk.

Myths and Legends: 

birdThe wonders of the earth have always captured our imagination. This is why we constantly see them represented in folk tales, legends, and artwork throughout all eras and civilizations. One myth that captures our wonder of the earth is the story of Daedalus and Icarus, father and son respectively. Imprisoned on the island of Crete for a crime against his nephew, Thalus, Daedalus was instructed by King Minos to build a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. This story ends with Daedalus inventing bird wings made of feather and wax to fly out of the labyrinth and out of Crete. However Icarus, his son, flies against his father’s advice, too close to the sun and his wings melt and he falls to his death. Daedalus was regarded as a great inventor and, seeing as though he copies the birds' way of flight, it lets us know that nature has always been in our minds. A less obvious example from this myth is that the very crime Daedalus committed against his nephew was out of jealousy because Thalus had invented the saw after “seeing how a snake’s jaw works.”

Leonardo Da Vinci: 1452-1519

art piece of da VinciLeonardo Da Vinci was one of the easiest students of biomimicry to find. He is one of the most revered and studied figures from the Italian Renaissance. Regarded as an expert scientist, inventor, artist, architect, mathematician, and many more, Leonardo was simply a man ahead of his time. Thousands of sketches from his notebooks are still sought after and studied today. A lot of his inventions, like his parachute, would have actually worked if they had been constructed under his instruction. The part of his work that relates to biomimicry is his study of birds, he was fascinated by flight and drew out schematics for many flying machines that mimicked the bone structure of birds and bats.

Post Industrial Revolution

Important People of the 1900s:

1912: Italian photochemist and Senator Giacomo Ciamician, wrote a paper describing a world without smokestacks where humankind has found the secret of photosynthesis and can run the world without coal. 
1950s: The term “biomimetics” was coined by American biophysicist and inventor Otto Schmitt.
1997: With her groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Jenine Benyus coined the term biomimicry and sparked the interest of the subject into engineers and designers all over the world. She also started her own world leading consulting organization, Biomimicry 3.8. Their mission is to teach the world to innovate, learn, and be inspired by nature. She continues to strive toward a future that listens to the earth rather than exploits it.

Velcro: 1955

bursWhile hunting in the Swiss Alps with his dog, George de Mestral noticed that burs in the woods stuck onto his clothes and his dog’s fur. While it was an inconvenience, he saw it as an opportunity. After further examining the burs, he noticed that its surface was made up of many tiny hooks. They stick to things by intertwining these hooks into the loose makeup of surfaces like fabric and animal fur. He invented Velcro by mimicking this surface covered in tiny hooks and partnering it with a surface covered in tiny loops, resulting in the useful product we know today.

Bullet Train: 1990s

a KingfisherIn the late 1990s Japan implemented biomimicry in the form of trains. The bullet trains they had been using were causing problems for all nearby inhabitants. When the trains zoomed through a tunnel, air would compress around the front of the train before releasing a tremendous booming noise once the train exited the tunnel. The chief engineer was able to solve this problem by looking to one of his hobbies: birdwatching. The kingfisher is a small bird with a long beak that dives into the water for its prey. The engineer redesigned the front of the train to be shaped like the kingfisher’s head, resulting in the train slicing the wind rather than trapping it inside the tunnels, fixing the booming sound.

Eastgate Centre: 1996

a terminte mound in a fieldThe Eastgate Centre is located in Harare, Zimbabwe and fills the role of a shopping mall and office space. However it is no ordinary shopping mall. Designed with the concept of termite hills in mind, the Eastgate Centre does not need to be conventionally heated or cooled. Termites keep their mounds at a steady temperature by closing and opening holes along the mound’s outer shell, allowing the air to ventilate and balance the temperature within. The Eastgate centre works in a similar way except with ducts and fans instead of termites. It uses 10% of the energy a conventional building of the same size.

Circular Economy: 

a sunflower growing in a garbage dumpA concept that has been thought about since 1966, the circular economy is the idea of planning business models with no waste. In the circle of life, there is no such thing as waste. Everything has its own purpose in the clockwork of the ecosystem. In our industrial world, there is an abundance of waste. But like the Cardboard to Caviar business model, companies are finding their own ways to eliminate or find separate uses for our economy’s waste output.

Wind turbines: 2010

a school of fishOne huge flaw in wind turbines is that when placed too close together, turbulence disrupts and lowers efficiency of horizontal axis wind turbines (the traditional ones). When studying the way schools of fish swam through water so close together, it was noted that how the fish swam complimented each other and none of them missed a beat. This helped solve this wind turbine flaw. When they rotated the axis so it pointed vertical, the turbines could be placed much closer together without disrupting the others. Increasing efficiency by up to 10x the horizontal axis.

Gecko Feet: 2012

geckoEngineers and students and Umass studied the foot pads of geckos and found that the reason the reptiles are able to crawl across vertical and upside down surfaces is because their feet are covered in hundreds of setae, or microscopic hairlike fibers. These fibers allow the gecko to stick to a surface, but also unstick himself from the surface easily. The result of this research was an adhesive substance that is used, as you could guess, to more efficiently stick objects to walls and surfaces.

Sharkskin: 2014

sharkSharkskin has been mimicked for its rough segmented texture. It turns out that bacteria do not like landing on the skin of a shark. Engineers have designed materials with a comparable microscopic texture that repel bacteria in a similar way. This material will be especially useful in hospitals where it can be used to cover surfaces and door handles to eliminate the spread of bacteria.

1David Staley is Interim Director of the Humanities Institute and Director of the Center for the Humanities in Practice (CHiP). He is an associate professor in the Department of History--where he teaches courses in digital history and historical methods--and holds courtesy appointments in the departments of Design--where he has taught courses in Design History and Design Futures--and Educational Studies, where he leads the "Forum on the University." His research interests include digital history, the philosophy of history, historical methodology, and the history and future of higher education.

Published April 19, 2018 by the Department of History at Ohio State University.