Brief History of Biomimicry

Although the idea of biomimicry or “imitating nature” has undoubtedly been existing for thousands—or maybe even hundreds of thousands of years—it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact time that humans started studying or copying nature to get solutions.

The history of biomimicry exists because certain types of human innovation were inspired or mentored by Nature which, after 3.8 billion years of evolution, has determined and uses the best, most efficient, and lasting methods or processes.

Biomimicry: Definitions

It would be right to state that long before the term “Biomimicry” was coined, our wise old planet Earth had been employing effective methods to preserve its various life forms for over 3.8 billion years since inception; however, it’s only long after this period that humans started studying biomimicry, especially over the past half-century, or thereabout; there are several well-known instances throughout recorded history.

What we now call “biomimicry” was actually in practice in 4000 BC when silk was first fabricated or invented by humans. The use of silk dates back to 4000 BC when the Chinese were the first to learn how to create silk from silkworms—i.e., the idea behind silk originated from silkworms! Therefore, the invention of silk is one of the first applications of biomimicry in recorded human history. Six thousand years after its invention, silk is still being used all over the world.

Lu Ban deserves a place in the history of biomimicry for his invention of the first Chinese umbrellas about 1700 years ago. He got the idea for the umbrella after watching children use lotus leaves to protect themselves from rain. He created his own product, an umbrella, by mimicking the structure, flexibility, and effectiveness of lotus leaves.

After studying the form and strength of eggshells, Filippo Brunelleschi was able to design a lighter and thinner dome for Florence Cathedral which was completed in 1436.

Leonardo Da Vinci was a student of biomimicry—of nature—and generally ahead of his peers and time. One major recorded instance of biomimicry in design is Da Vinci’s study of the flight of birds in the 1480s. This likely culminated in his writing of Codex on the Flight of Birds between 1505 and 1506; it speculates that man-made or human air travel can be modelled after avian flight mechanics. Before leaving this world, Da Vinci produced a lot of works and more than 500 sketches that dealt with the nature of air and flight mechanics. Da Vinci’s fascination for studying birds and their flight inspired him to design many flying machines and make their structure mimic the bone structure of birds.

Inspired by the leaf of a water lily, Joseph Paxton built crisscrossed iron girders that supported almost 300,000 panes of glass all around an open and vast space of the unparalleled architecture of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition which was erected in 1851.

Ernst Haeckel’s publications showed that architects and artists of the early 1900s or twentieth century were mainly inspired by biological life forms, and many structures constructed during the Art Nouveau period imitated nature. One example is the entrance gate to the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, which was inspired by a radiolarian skeleton and constructed by René Binet.

The Wright brothers (Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright) were inspired by birds, especially how they use air currents to create lift and navigate in different directions; the inspiration was the foundation for their model and the first-ever successful airplane flight which they themselves undertook in 1903 when their aircraft stayed in the air in just less than a minute in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Fast forward to almost a decade later in 1912: the world witnessed the first successful commercial passenger flight which travelled from St. Petersburg to Tampa, all within Florida.

It’s important to note that the practice of applying ideas found in nature became very widespread during the mid-twentieth century, and biomimicry was increasingly being employed in designing ships, vehicles, and aircraft by modeling from biological studies.

Otto Schmitt coined the term “biomimetics” and developed the concept behind it. He continued to work on products that mimic natural systems and had a perception in 1957 that led to a view he would eventually call biomimetics. Not long after in 1960, Jack E. Steele—who worked together with Otto Schmitt at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio—coined the term “bionics” which is similar to—but not the same with—“biomimetics”.

George de Mestral patented Velcro (nylon fabric that is used as fastening) in 1955. The inspiration for his invention came while he was having a walk with his dog in the woods; many cockleburs covered his clothes and dog’s fur, and he was intrigued by how their tiny hooks stuck so strongly. He mimicked the surface covered in tiny hooks, coupled it with a surface wrapped up in tiny loops, and invented Velcro which is one of the most useful products in today’s world.

In 1969, the term “biomimetics” was used for the first time ever by Otto Schmitt, and by 1974 Webster’s Dictionary started having it published among its words. It might be important to note that the term “bionics” entered Webster’s Dictionary much earlier in 1960, and was defined as “a science concerned with the application of data about the functioning of biological systems to the solution of engineering problems”.

It was only in 1982 that the term biomimicry formally appeared and started being used. In the 1990s, less than a hundred papers per year were being written on biomimicry and published; however, the number of papers skyrocketed to a couple thousand per year between the 2000s and 2010s. Part of this was fuelled by the wide use of the term by scientist Janine Benyus in her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, published in 1997.

Once upon a time in the past, the bullet trains used in Japan were releasing terrible booming noises at the exit of a tunnel whenever they travelled at fast speeds through it. The compressed air around the train’s front part was the cause, and this became a major concern and problem for all nearby inhabitants; however, in the late 1990s, a Japanese chief engineer solved the problem while engaging in his hobby: birdwatching. He studied how the kingfisher bird dives its long beak into the water to get prey. The engineer ended up redesigning the train’s front to take the shape of the kingfisher’s head. The end result eradicated the terrible booming noise. How? The redesigned train could cut the wind and prevent noise instead of trap it in the tunnel and create disturbing noises.

The self-cooling termite hills or mounds that were being constructed by African termites at the time were a source of inspiration for Architect Mick Pearce who designed the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1996. Instead of using a conventional heating and cooling system in the large office and retail space, a chimney is being used to draw in cool air naturally and sustain a temperate surrounding. The Eastgate Centre uses only ten percent of the total energy that is being used by a conventional building of the same size. It’s important to note that termites are able to maintain a steady temperature in their mounds by opening and closing the holes on the outer shell of the mounds, thereby ensuring that air ventilates and balances the inner temperature.

Janine Benyus published her book titled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature in 1997 and spread the word about biomimetics, with the goal of bringing an end to environmental degradation and destruction. She made some remarkable statements to National Geographic years after publishing her book: “We’re able to apply fresh thinking to traditional manufacturing to undo the toxic and energy-intensive mistakes of the past”, and “I wish we had been at the design table at the Industrial Revolution.”

In 2006, the Journal of Bionic Engineering published Richard Bonser’s paper which is a study that assessed the growth of biomimetic innovation. Mr. Bonser found out that between 1985 and 2005, the total number of patents worldwide that used the term “biomimetic” or the word “bio-inspired” increased by a factor of 93.

In 2008, Engineer Hansjörg Wyss pledged $125 million to Harvard University to establish the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering which, according to a press release, “will strive to uncover the engineering principles that govern living things, and use this knowledge to develop technology solutions for the most pressing health-care and environmental issues facing humanity”.

By mimicking the microstructure of the Morpho butterfly’s wing scales, dressmaker Donna Sgro was able to create a certain type of dress in 2010, from Teijin Fibers’ Morphotex which is an undyed fabric woven derived from structurally colored fibers.

In 2011, Lynn Reaser, established the Da Vinci Index to evaluate the number and growth of bio-inspired research and innovations by assessing how often biomimetics terms are used in scientific patents, grants, and publications or journals.

In 2012, Deckard Sorensen and Miguel Galvez, who were both undergraduates at Boston College, produced a water bottle that was inspired by the Namib Desert beetle and made to harvest air moisture, just like the insect which absorbs water from air. It was estimated that the device could store up to 3 liters of drinking water every hour. Galvez told the BBC: “If we’re creating [several] liters per day in a cost-effective manner”, you can get this to a community of people in sub-Saharan Africa and other dry regions of the world.”

In July 2014, Lavasa Corporation of India made a second attempt within four years to raise over $100 million to use biomimetic principles to develop a city by incorporating rainwater harvesting, reforestation efforts, and green construction practices.

Based on findings from detailed observations of the material arrangements of living things, led by designer Achim Menges and Dr. Jan Knippers, the ICD (Institute of Computational Design) in collaboration with the ITKE (Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design) at the University of Stuttgart are able to create multiple research pavilions and prototypes. The 2013-2014 pavilion that was created from robotically woven fi­bers is just one example, which is based on an understanding of the geomorphology of beetle shells.


18 thoughts on “Brief History of Biomimicry

    1. Priscilla, thanks for reading and making such a remarkable comment about Nature being sogenius. She’s awesome. While researching and writing, I’m thinking to myself–even until now–that Nature is just beyond words when it comes to the countless number of magnificent ways it gets life and things going; we may continue to have to learn much from Her

      Liked by 1 person

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