Today, nature as teacher. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Here's a heavily-illustrated
signed first edition of a book entitled
Inventors at Work, from 1906. Science
writer George Iles provides a fine look at the
technologies on people's minds a century ago --
from railroads and logging, all the way to radium.
His chapter on "Nature as Teacher" really catches
my eye: As we enter the twenty-first century, we've
come to realize how hard it is to
replicate nature's ways. For all our efforts to
copy bipedal locomotion or flapping-wing flight,
the human brain or the human heart, we've managed
to make only the crudest approximations.
Iles is no fool. He doesn't tell us to go out and
replicate all that nature does. Rather, he invites
us to think about the way we and nature have
tackled similar problems.
We use the strong cross-section of
a cylinder for pipes and piers, just as nature uses
it in a reed. Fireflies create light. Our lungs
separate oxygen from nitrogen. We use lenses to
copy functions of the human eye. Look, Iles says,
at tree-root systems, valves in our veins, and the
body as a system of levers.
I especially like the way he sees the body as an
energy-conversion system, for he understands
thermodynamics. He writes,
When an inventor builds an engine to drive a
huge ship across the sea, he has created a motor
vastly larger than his own frame, but much inferior
[to the human body] in economy.
And the steam engine driving the ship has to
contain huge temperature variations, while our
bodies stay close to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
That theme recurs when Iles talks about replicating
the flight of birds and insects. His book came out
just two and a half years after the Wright Brothers
flew. But they were still quietly readying their
airplane for the market, and Iles is unaware of
He talks instead about America's public guru of
flight, Samuel P.
Langley. Langley had flown a steam-powered
model airplane and then built a huge
fifty-horsepower internal-combustion engine for his
two failed attempts at human-piloted flight.
Nevertheless, Iles clearly sees that
internal combustion comes closer to the compact
effectiveness of animal power systems and will be
the eventual key to human flight. (The Wrights, by
the way, used the new material aluminum to make a
light four-cylinder twelve-horsepower engine.)
Iles finishes by looking at the first man-made
diamonds. Nature was far
ahead of us and would remain so into any
foreseeable future. But those diamonds are what
give him hope that we might at last step clear of
elementary copying -- knives like tigers' teeth, or
houses as artificial caves.
So many old writings groan with hyperbole, and we
still see so much naïve stuff today. That's
why I like this old book. Iles brings such fine
balance to this look at our ever-futile, but
immensely useful, attempts to catch up with
nature's exquisite engineering.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Iles, G. Inventors at Work. New York:
Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906. See especially,
For more on this topic see Episode 1068.
From Iles, taken in turn from a 1905 study of wasps
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.