By Christopher McFadden
From very basic beginnings, our species has developed some incredible engineering in our time.
But, as it turns out, engineering might be in our DNA.
Nature, it seems, is just as good at engineering as we are.
Nature has proven itself a master engineer, with millions of years of evolution perfecting intricate designs and mechanisms that sometimes outshine even our most advanced human inventions. The efficiency and adaptability of biological systems are evident in many examples, from the complex structure of a spider’s web to the aerodynamics of bird flight.
These natural marvels offer a treasure trove of inspiration for engineers and scientists as they seek to mimic or adapt the extraordinary properties and features found in the natural world. Indeed, the study of biomimicry has propelled countless innovations, demonstrating that nature remains an unparalleled source of engineering brilliance.
Let’s look at some of the most interesting examples.
1. Nature got to levers long before us
Levers date back to the Stone Age, around 5000 B.C. when ancient humans used simple wooden tools to lift and move heavy objects. Early accounts of levers are found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they were used to lift water vessels and construct massive structures like pyramids. The Greek mathematician Archimedes formally described the lever’s principle around 260 B.C., highlighting its ability to amplify force. Since then, levers have been essential in various human technologies and engineering applications, from tools and machines to everyday items.
But nature got to all that long before us. One example today, though there are many, is the beaks of some birds, such as finches and toucans, which work like levers to help them grasp and manipulate food. The limbs and jaws of animals, including humans, also function as levers for movement and force application.
2. Nature also discovered pulleys long before us
The history of pulleys dates back to ancient civilizations, around 1500 B.C., with early examples found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Greek mathematician Archimedes further developed the pulley system in the 3rd century B.C., creating compound pulleys that multiplied force and enabled lifting heavier loads. Over time, pulleys have become integral to various machines and technologies, from construction cranes to elevators, revolutionizing industries and simplifying complex transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing tasks.
But, once again, nature beat us by a long mile. Some spiders hoist prey using use a pulley-like system made from silk to snag oversized prey like lizards or even small mammals. But don’t despair; humans also used pulleys before realizing what they were. The human body also uses a system of tendons and muscles that work like pulleys to enable movement. For example, the knee acts as a simple pulley to extend the leg.
3. Nature beat us to gears too
The history of gears can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with early examples dating to around 300 B.C. in China and the Hellenistic world. Gears were initially used in simple mechanical devices like water-lifting machines and clocks. The Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek astronomical device from the 2nd century B.C., is an early example of complex gear systems. Gears gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution, becoming essential in machinery, transportation, and manufacturing components. Today, gears play a vital role in various industries and technologies, from automobiles and robotics to renewable energy systems.
The Issus coleoptratus, a type of planthopper insect, has a pair of interlocking gears on its hind legs that synchronize its movements when jumping, allowing it to jump at incredible speeds. An ingenious strategy if ever we saw one.
4. Sorry, humans, nature developed the spring before us too
The history of springs dates back to ancient civilizations, where they were used in simple mechanical devices like door locks and catapults. The Greeks and Romans employed springs made from bronze or iron for various purposes. In the 15th century, spring-driven clocks were developed, revolutionizing timekeeping. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, springs became integral components in machinery, transportation, and manufacturing. In the late 19th century, steel coil springs were introduced, enhancing the performance of suspension systems in vehicles. Today, springs are found in numerous applications, from everyday objects to advanced aerospace and automotive technologies.
And yet, once again, springs are much older than anything humans ever conceived. Take, for example, the legs of kangaroos and other jumping animals. The tendons in a kangaroo’s legs compress with each bound, releasing like a coiled spring to propel the kangaroo. The anatomy of these creatures stores elastic energy like springs, enabling them to jump great distances.
5. Nature got to nuts and bolts first, too
The history of nuts and bolts dates back to ancient times, with early examples of threaded fasteners found around the 5th century B.C. These early fasteners were made of wood and were used in architecture and machinery.
Metal nuts and bolts appeared in the 1st century A.D. in Roman structures, and the use of screws increased during the Renaissance. The Industrial Revolution led to the standardization and mass production of nuts and bolts, making them essential components in machinery, construction, and transportation. As secure and reliable fastening solutions, nuts and bolts are critical in various industries, from aerospace to automotive. But, you’ve guessed it, nature also appears to have developed forms of them first.
Researchers have discovered that weevils, specifically the Trigonopterus genus, use a nut and bolt mechanism to attach their legs to their bodies. This unique joint, previously thought to be of a hinge type, was found in the Papuan weevil Trigonopterus oblongus, where the top section of the weevil’s legs, the trochanter, screws into the coxa, akin to a hip. This arrangement allows weevils to twist their legs through a wide range of motion and provides increased stability and resistance to dislocation compared to a ball-and-socket joint. The screw-around leg design is likely beneficial for weevils navigating leaf litter and twigs in their natural habitat.
6. Nature beat us to the punch on hooks too
Yet another “invention” that nature beat us to are hooks. For us humans, like many other basic pieces of engineering, hooks have been used since prehistoric times for various purposes, such as fishing, fastening, and hanging items. They can be made from materials like wood, bone, or metal, depending on their intended use. Over time, hooks have evolved into specialized forms for specific applications, ranging from clothing fasteners to industrial cranes.
In nature, hooks are a pretty common physical structure, with many plants, such as cockleburs, having hook-like structures that attach to passing animals, facilitating seed dispersal. Interestingly, this particular design inspired the invention of Velcro.
7. Joints and hinges are also an ancient natural “discovery”
Joints and hinges facilitate controlled movement between two or more parts, often allowing for rotation or pivoting. These components have a long history of use, with early examples found in architectural structures, doors, and various devices.
Over time, materials for joints and hinges have advanced from wood and stone to metals such as brass, steel, and aluminum. They are utilized in many applications, including everyday items, from simple hinges in doors, cabinets, and eyeglasses, to more sophisticated hinges in machinery, robotics, and aerospace systems. They offer diverse movement capabilities and significantly enhance the functionality of numerous products.
But, yet again, they are nothing new to nature. There are many examples in the natural world, but the wings of some insects and the limbs of animals often have joint structures arranged in a hinge in order to enable complex movements to occur primarily in one plane.
8. Hydraulics was known to nature long before humans
Hydraulics is a form of technology for transmitting power and motion through the controlled use of pressurized fluids, typically liquids like oil or water. Developed in ancient times with applications such as Archimedes’ screw, hydraulics have evolved significantly over the centuries. Modern hydraulic systems are integral to various industries, from construction and transportation to manufacturing and aviation.
They enable the efficient and precise operation of heavy machinery, like excavators, cranes, and aircraft landing gear, and the functioning of smaller systems, like brakes and power steering, in automobiles. Hydraulics offer high power-to-weight ratios and exceptional control capabilities.
Soft-bodied animals like earthworms and sea anemones rely on hydrostatic “skeletons,” which use fluid pressure to maintain their shape and enable movement. For movement, their bodies work similarly to hydraulics that we commonly use today in many machines. An earthworm is divided into segments. Each segment is filled with fluid and has sets of long and circular muscles. When long muscles tighten, the segment becomes shorter; when circular muscles tighten, the segment becomes longer.
9. Nature has been using pumps for time immemorial
Pumps have been used since ancient times, with early examples such as Archimedes’ screws used as water-lifting devices. Pumps have evolved into various types, including reciprocating, centrifugal, and diaphragm pumps, each designed for specific applications and fluid properties. Pumps are essential in numerous industries, including water supply, wastewater treatment, agriculture, oil and gas, and chemical processing. They play a crucial role in everyday life, from household plumbing systems to automobile fuel pumps, enabling fluid efficiency and controlled movement.
In nature, pumps are often found in specialized organs or structures that facilitate fluid movement. The main example is, of course, the heart in animals, which pumps blood through circulatory systems.
Squid are another familiar example. On the underside of the squid’s body is the funnel—water and other fluids are pumped through the funnel, allowing the squid to exhale, expel waste, lay eggs, squirt ink, and move through the water by jet-propulsion. It has also recently been found that jellyfish move using a pump-like system. These natural pumps showcase the efficiency and adaptability of biological systems.
And that is your lot for today.
From levers to pumps, nature achieved many engineering marvels over millions of years of trial and error in many varied and exciting ways. Some are so good that they have inspired human inventions and provided valuable insights for modern human engineers and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.