Skip to main content
No. 1724:
Nature as Teacher

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 created them.

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.

Arm as a leverHis 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 them.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Iles, G. Inventors at Work. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906. See especially, Chapter XVIII.

For more on this topic see Episode 1068.

From Iles, taken in turn from a 1905 study of wasps

From Iles, taken in turn from a 1905 study of wasps