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Biomimicry: quite a story!

Looking at the history of biomimicry is important to fully understand its evolution and current form. Thus, biomimicry's current results both from immemorial observations and the latest scientific progress!

Biomimicry in the cradle

The first traces in history of biomimicry in the broad sense, that is to say, creating inspired by nature (or bio-inspiration), undoubtedly date back to prehistoric times. From imitating the cries of birds to hunt to wearing animal skins for warmth, the humankind was able to exploit very quickly the mechanisms and properties of nature for very diverse functions (survival, social position etc.).

Let's jump back in time to European antiquity. We find traces of human's desire to draw inspiration from nature and the living. In particular through the Greek myth of Icarus which realizes the fantasy of flying like a bird by attaching artificial wings to itself, but dies of it out of pride for having flown too high, the wings burned by the fire of the sun. However, man has never ceased to seek to rise from the ground, in particular by observing birds...

Icarus and his father Daedalus, the first men to fly according to Greek mythology, depicted here in Chicago by artist Roger Brown

For some Greek philosophers, like the atomist Democritus, the notion of mimesis (defined by Plato) covers the fact of imitating nature through the technique: weaving imitating, for example, the webs made by spiders. At the same time, Aristotle was interested in biomechanics, defined today as the study of the mechanical properties of living beings. He wrote the first book on the subject, titled De Motu Animalium, in English On the movement of animals. He is the first of a long series of curious, professionals and amateurs, who took an interest in the mechanisms at work in the organisms around us, and in their potential technical application... They contribute thus without knowing it to the history of biomimicry and bio-inspiration.

Biomimicry in its prime

For many, the story of biomimicry really begins with Leonardo da Vinci. Known for his famous paintings, the Florentine is also known for his schematics of flying machines, its ornithopters. Indeed, among his multiple talents, this polymath was an anatomist who enjoyed observing the flight of birds. His ideas were put down on paper and transmitted to mankind, allowing them to bear fruit four centuries later with the beginnings of the 'aviation. He also tried his hand at automatons replicating humans or various animals.

Leonardo da Vinci's ornithopter, one of his most famous inventions, inspired by the flight of birds

In 1638, Galilee published Dialogue on the two main systems of the world, in which he introduces modern mechanical science. Biomechanics was very present in the scholarly minds of that time, so William Harvey was the first to identify the human heart as a pump that propels blood in the circulatory system, in 1628. Another example is that of Giovanni Borelli, who studied animal locomotion and is sometimes considered the father of the biomechanics.

The story of biomimicry is gaining ground

Biomimicry experienced a real boom with the industrial revolution, and the discovery of new sources of energy such as steam or electricity. Thus, on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition of 1889, the 300 meter tower, now named after its promoter Gustave Eiffel, was designed from the observation of the remarkable mechanical properties of the human femur. This bone, the longest in the human body, is very strong despite a relatively low mass. By seeking to reproduce the structure of the bony spans of the femur, its designers created a unique biomimetic tower, lighter than the cylinder of air that contains it despite the wrought iron of which it is made, and which is the pride of France today.

The structure of the Eiffel Tower inspired by the human femur

At the end of the 19th century, many people were interested in development of flying machines. One of the best known is probably Clément Ader, inventor of the word “aeroplane” as well as his first three aeroplanes, the Eole, the Zephyr and the Aquilon. He is considered one of the fathers of world aviation. It's inspired by the gliding flight of bats that he developed his Avion I, II and III, and gave them the characteristic shape of the wings of chiroptera (the famous bats).

The story of biomimicry continues to soar with the development of aviation throughout the 20th century and after. Today, Icarus' dream has come true, and the man is now aiming for the stars... Meanwhile, on solid ground, biomimicry was also at the origin of original and remarkable discoveries. Thus, in 1941, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral invented the velcro after having been inspired by the small hooked heads of burdock, a common plant in Europe. By observing them under the microscope, he observed that these hooks allow a very good adherence of the plant on the curly surfaces. The velcro business (which comes from the contraction of velvet and hook) was founded in 1959, thanks to the replication of this property of life which could be adapted to an industrial scale.

Biomimicry today: the story continues

It was in the 1950s that the term “biomimicry” was coine by the American researcher Otto Schmitt, shortly followed by the term "bionics" in 1958, to officially designate a science and an approach to research and development . The latter is still used today, especially in the robotic field, although it has been largely superseded by its predecessor. He is also the source of sci-fi fantasies, as seen in the TV series The Three Billion Man , where the hero is a bionic man of outsized strength. Far from these fictional considerations, biomimicry now has a strong application and industrial component, and a real need is developing. In particular with the awareness of what living things can bring us beyond immediate physical resources, also known as the knowledge economy.

In 1997, the American scientist Janine Benyus made a major contribution to biomimicry through her work to expand biological inspiration for the development of efficient innovations, sustainable and environmentally friendly. She is considered today as one of the leading figures in the history of biomimicry, in the world, with no less than six books published on the subject.

Today, biomimicry can boast of having infiltrated almost every industry sector around the world, consistently demonstrating its effectiveness as a living-based research and development approach. Countless innovations have thus been patented, and many universities and laboratories around the world continue to study living organisms with a view to applications in the sectors of energy, health, aeronautics, telecommunications, cosmetics, construction, transport, luxury,...

The Shinkansen, Japanese high-speed train, whose shape is inspired by the kingfisher's beak

To infinity, and beyond?

We have just seen that the history of biomimicry goes back several millennia, and has benefited from a tremendous boost in recent centuries, then in recent decades.

And if biomimicry still kept its best cards for tomorrow? What if the future was drawn in squid ink? If it tooks it's inspiration from the light of fireflies? Sustainable development is one of today's most important issues, and biomimicry one of its proudest banners. Just like the immortal jellyfish and its fascinating secrets, we bet that the adventure and history of biomimicry will continue to keep us spellbound , for centuries of discovery and preservation.


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