The world around us is a marvel of both biological and technological evolution. This means that ideas and inventions do not come from a vacuum; they come forth as we build upon what we know and see around us. So how did we get from rubbing sticks together to create fire, all the way to harnessing solar power for powering our lights? From time immemorial, inventors and creators took note of the world around them to fuel their ideas and designs. This came in the form of understanding how nature functioned, reading books to develop imagination and creativity or perhaps just walking around their neighbourhood and observing the everyday environment.
The cell phone or tablet that you are likely reading this article on was brought into ubiquity by Apple. The company revolutionized the cell phone by doing away with the number pad and replacing it with a touchscreen that was able to accomplish many more functions. In addition to acting as a communication device, you could read the news, take pictures and even play games on it. However, was this idea wholly original and never thought of before? Back in 1987, science fiction show, Star Trek showed off the PADD, a device that had a touchscreen with one or two buttons. It acted as a face-to-face communication device not unlike Facetime. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” also had astronauts reading the news on a paper-thin device that remarkably resembled a tablet. It’s hard to say if these were truly the original source of their idea but we can definitely see similarities.
Mother Nature has been the basis of more inventions than any other person throughout history. She has been the catalyst for many items that we use today. This is a science known as biomimicry – imitating nature to solve problems. One of nature’s most ferocious sea animals, sharks, have to swim very fast to stay at the top of the food chain. Researchers have been looking into what makes sharks such great swimmers. Turns out that shark skin, despite being very rough, reduces drag (friction between the shark’s skin and water) by a large amount. This has led researchers to apply “shark skin” technology with airplanes. Paint on the exterior of an aircraft can be applied with this technology to reduce aerodynamic drag when flying, saving on fuel costs and perhaps our wallets too.
Closer to home, think of Velcro which we use it in shoes and straps to secure things together easily. You may have encountered its base inspiration sticking to your clothes after walking through a field, as did Swiss engineer and Velcro’s inventor, George de Mestral. While taking a hike in the Alps, he found these spiky plant seeds known as burs which stuck to his clothes and dog’s fur. Wondering how it worked, he decided to investigate the tiny burs and found out that the tip of the spikes had hooks which caught onto anything that formed a loop, such as the fibres of his clothes or his dog’s fur. This led to his eventual invention of the Velcro strap, two pieces of fabric with one side carrying hooks and the other side carrying loops!
Perhaps the most shining example of biomimicry would be the world’s first successful motor operated aircraft, invented by the Wright Brothers. But what led them to creating such an engineering marvel? Far back in history, Man tried imitating birds by using arms as wings but without an understanding of how birds flew, it only led to injuries. Gliders were the next leap in our understanding of air flow, allowing Man to stay in the air for a longer amount of time but gliders were ultimately a controlled fall, rather than actual flight. The Wright brothers eventually came onto the scene, building upon years of research and prototyping. They observed that birds controlled their flight by changing the angle of their wingtips. This led to their discovery and application of wing-warping to maneuver their aircraft. Eventually through years of hard work and an understanding of how aerodynamics could be worked to their advantage, they achieved the first record of powered flight in 1903.
Inspiration is not limited to these big inventions and ideas, it can be applied to our everyday problems at home, school or work. Back in 1920, young housewife, Josephine Dickson was prone to incidents in the kitchen, accumulating many cuts and bruises. Her husband, Earle Dickson sought an easy way for her to protect her wounds from infection. Thus, he created convenient and ready-to-use bandages by combining cotton gauze squares and adhesive tape. This eventually led to the invention of the adhesive bandage that we use today.
Analogous inspiration is the application of existing ideas to an unrelated problem. By adapting an already available solution to a problem that it was not originally intended for, it can be solved by us having a new outlook and understanding of the issue. Bringing us back to the Wright Brothers, they were in the bicycle business before making their airplane. Taking inspiration from it, they used a series of wires and chains to control their first aircraft. Hence, they were able to use their past experiences to help them with a very different problem.
So if you are unable to think of an answer, try putting the problem aside and work on other tasks instead, such as gardening or reading a book. Although you are not actively working on it, your subconsciousness is still floating the problem in your head, pondering what could be done. By putting it aside, you allow your brain to wander, looking at your past experiences and think up novel ideas you may have not thought of when narrowing your focus solely on the problem. This is known as the incubation effect, letting your mind rest and start afresh with new insights.
Next time you are stuck, perhaps try some of these ideas listed to get inspired. You can also check out a previous article here for more ideas. Who knows, you could be the next great inventor of our time!
Written by Oh Wei Sian
Illustrations by Toh Bee Suan