Humans might be the most highly-evolved species on the planet, but most animals possess skills we can only dream of having. Imagine how much electricity we could save if we could see in the dark the way cats do. Imagine leaping from tree to tree like a monkey. Giraffes, which are otherwise calm and genteel, sleep only 4.6 hours a day (forget flying, how can I learn to do that?).
We realized a long, long time ago–centuries, perhaps even thousands of years before the publication of Popular Science, shocking as that sounds–that nature provides the best blueprint for invention. We’ve borrowed canals from beavers, towers from termites and reflectors from cat’s eyes. More recently, George de Mestral patented Velcro in the 1940s after seeing how burrs stuck on the fur of his dog. Although the words “bionics,” “biomimetics,” and “biomimicry” became popular only after the 1960s, history shows that nature has always provided ideas on solving everyday problems. Our archives don’t go back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci and his bird-like flying machines, but we can take you to the late 19th century, where we applied those same principles for building our first practical airplanes.
Click to launch the photo gallery.
To prepare for their flight at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers studied the movements of pigeons to figure out how they stayed aloft when they were heavier than air. Their success inspired scores of successors to improve on the airplane by studying various facets of nature. One of Orville Wright’s pupils caught and stuffed seagulls to examine their wingspan. His gull plane, which could reportedly take off and land in your backyard, actually resembled a seagull (see above photo). Meanwhile, two French inventors examined whirling sycamore seeds in an effort to apply those same motions, reversed, to a hovering helicopter.
Some bio-inspired concepts have yet to be invented. In the 1960s, the US Army commissioned several university professors to conduct research on the motor skills of animals in hope of applying those same abilities to tanks. Tanks that gallop like horses or jump like grasshoppers — sounds monstrous, doesn’t it? But imagine how life would change if we could achieve that.
Click through our gallery to read about tanks and caterpillars, eels and boats, and other technologies that were directly influenced by nature.
Birdlike Motor: January 1892
Nine years before the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, aerial engineers were making headway in their argument that the flying machine, not the balloon, represented the future of aviation. There was, however, one problem that continued to stump them (and us): the motor. How exactly would you build a motor and a generator that could levitate despite being heavier than air? In an article translated to English, Le Monde del la Science et de l’Industrie shared their ideas with us. In 1870, the Academy of Sciences presented them with a proposal for a flying machine based on a bird. If you consider the motor and generator as the machine’s “propulsory organs,” then think of the atmosphere as its fuel. Nature’s birds take in oxygen and hydrogen every day. The mechanical bird would do the same using a revolver barrel equipped with 12 cartridges. You would hang the bird on a large crane and drop it as if it were a pendulum. Once it falls, the barrel would turn, the catches would go off, hydrogen would react with atmospheric air, the cartridges would explode, allowing the bird to take flight. Instead of falling, the bird would use its wings to glide gently away. Read the full story in “The Aviator Flying-Machine”
Man and Nature: July-Dec 1917
There isn’t much commentary, or even an article, to go along with this illustration, but perhaps the image speaks for itself. Seven million years ago, the first birds took flight, and since then, they’ve been evolving to become better at it. In the same way, the early airplanes would take off clumsily, wobble mid-air, and crash a few times until we perfected the technology. Finally, we pointed out how closely the silhouette of our first airplanes resembled those of early bird-like creatures. Read the full story in “The First Successful Fliers of Man and Nature”
Giant Caterpillars: April 1918
There’s no time like the end of World War I to give a brief history of tanks, right? Tanks might be formidable and dangerous, but their design was actually based on the bodies of tiny caterpillars. In the late 19th century, a young American inventor named Benjamin Holt patented and manufactured the first practical caterpillar tread tractor, which went on to inspire Great Britain’s designs for tanks that used a continuous track. With the British Army’s permission, we asked one of our writers to operate a British tank and report back on its similarities to a caterpillar. Needless to say, there were several: firstly, like a caterpillar, a tank can move at steep angles without losing its balance. To achieve this, caterpillars use “pro-legs,” or hooks beneath their body, to clasp surfaces. Tanks employ a similar method by using the shoes on their belts instead of wheels. Let’s not forget weaponry. Caterpillars squirt poison from their snouts, while tanks fire machine guns. “What the tank is to modern battle, the caterpillar may well be in the wars of the insect world,” we wrote. “It seems, after all, as though ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’ We copy the fish for submarines the birds for airplanes, and now the tank is just a glorified caterpillar.” Read the full story in “Why Tanks are Giant Caterpillars”
Whirling Leaf Helicopter: September 1922
If you’re experiencing difficulty achieving vertical flight, look no further than the winged, falling seeds of a sycamore tree. At least, that’s what two French engineers said when they built their seed-shaped “gyropter.” Although the gyrocopter couldn’t actually fly, its inventors claimed that it would be able to once they figured out how to replicate and reverse the screw-like flight patterns of a winged seed. Instead of attaching a propeller to the machine, they would let the machine function as its own giant propeller blade. To move the gyropter, a blower turbine and motor case would force air through the hollow end of the propeller blade. The air would then hit the steering arm attached to the nacelle, which would enable the pilot to steer. Sadly, the war set the inventors back, and once they finished the machine, they couldn’t get it to ascend. Despite the setbacks, they were convinced that it was only a matter of time before they could develop equipment and engines powerful enough to lift the gyropter of the ground. Read the full story in “Will This ‘Whirling Leaf’ Flying Machine Solve Greatest Problem in Aviation?”
The Fish Boat: June 1926
While building a boat, a young mechanical engineer named C.M. Breder studied the movements of fish as inspiration. His experiments included removing one of their fins to evaluate how the change affected their mobility. After a few years of research, he constructed two models of metal boats based on how fish swim. The first boat was a flat, rectangular model which uses a metal detachable “tail” to steer itself. He used a phonograph motor as its engine so that each revolution nudged the tail. He called this model the “cow,” saying that it demonstrated how a flexible tail and paddle-like fins could impel a fish forward. The second model, based on an eel, used a row of rigid wire rods covered by webbing to move around. A motor would push the rods back and forth, while the webbing would act like an underwater sail to give the boat extra momentum. Read the full story in “A Sea Mystery Solved”
Gullplane: December 1926
One more for the airplane-bird comparisons: Leonard W. Bonney, a former pupil of Orville Wright, built a gull-like plane with foldable wings. To prepare, he caught and stuffed several gulls to use as models. After two years of study, he released the Bonney Gull which could land in one’s backyard and be wheeled into the garage. Its wings, who were held together by gun locks, could adjust themselves mid-air to keep the machine upright. The gasoline was kept in a tank in the front of the fuselage, near where two passengers could sit for a relaxing, graceful ride. Read the full story in “New Airplane Built Like a Gull”
Biomimicry 101: October 1933
What do you know, a whole feature on biomimicry before the term “biomimicry” was even coined. Here, we outlined all the different technologies we lifted from nature. For example, bear traps, which were inspired by Venus flytraps. Hypodermic needles were inspired by honey bee stings, poison gas by Bombadier beetles, steam shovels by crickets (who have their own built-in digging devices), and skyscrapers by termite structure. How about canals and beaver lodges? The list goes on and on. Read the full story in “Nature Invented Them First”
Fish Submarine: December 1938
Barney Connett, of Chicago, built his one-man submarine as a more literal interpretation of biomimicry. At a heigh of 37 inches and a width of 23 inches, his submarine was hailed as one of the world’s smallest underwater boats. Although it looked nothing like a conventional submarine, his fish boat was equipped with standard sub equipment, such as blowers, air pumps and a respirator. The tail, which was fitted with a mini propeller, functioned as a stabilizer, and the boat ran on two sets of electric storage batteries. As expected, Connett made frequent trips (as in, over 300) with his fish boat. The thing cold dive to depths of 30 feet and could run for fourteen miles without recharging. To navigate the fish boat, the captain would use a periscope that poked out of the water. Read the full story in “Tin Fish is a One-Man Submarine”
Johnson Wax Research Tower: January 1950
Nowadays, the thought of people living in trees or tree-like structure recalls sci-fi/fantasy imagery, or perhaps images from National Geographic. To Frank Lloyd Wright, however, a tree provided the perfect model for SC Johnson & Son’s 15-story research laboratory. On the outside, it looked like an “oversized chimney,” but its interior resembled the cross section of a tree trunk. Cantilevered supports for working floors resembled branches. Like a tree, the research lab used a centralized supply service. A wide shaft in the building’s core provided air-conditioning, and was the location for piping and primary power conduits. Read the full story in “Research Laboratory Built Like a Tree”
Walking Tanks: July 1960
After World War II, researchers wanted to take the animal mimicry to another level by building tanks that creep around like horses and grasshoppers. The logic here is that although airplanes can fly faster than birds and boats can move faster than ducks, no ground-supported vehicle at the time could cross rugged terrain faster than a horse or a cheetah. Kangaroos, we noted, could jump obstacles that would stop a tank. To tackle this project, the Army enlisted university researchers nationwide to study the legs of fast-moving animals. Professor R.K. Bernhard of Rutgers, built contraptions that copied the rhythmic leaps of horses and the irregular jumping patterns of grasshoppers. After seeing his reports, the Army assigned more research on the study of walking, perhaps in hope that it would be easier to implement walking technology than running mechanisms on a larger scale. Despite the abundance of ideas, we could only point out that the Army had a long way to go in terms before they could completely replicate the movements of animals. Programming a pair of mechanical legs to run and jump is one thing, but animals aren’t brainless; like us, they use millions of tiny nerves to coordinate every single motor function. The day we devise engines that can automatically adjust their output, the same way that muscles can, is the day we can realistically manufacture walking tanks. Read the full story in “Tanks That Walk and Jump”