The Henry Ford has a grounds crew that works year-round to keep the expansive lawns in tip-top condition. Green practices have driven much of the care from the beginning. The millponds in Liberty Craftworks and behind A Taste of History are all part of a natural water filtration system that allows residue to settle out of rainwater runoff before it enters the Rouge River. That’s just one part of water management at The Henry Ford, however, because that water is also reused to irrigate the lawns.
The irrigation system keeps the yards lush. Thus, mowing consumes many an hour in the grounds crew’s schedule. A grant from the Aptiv Foundation Inc. funded purchase of a new Evo electric zero-turn riding mower. The 74-inch width means the grounds crew can cut more grass in a day (and the battery will power up to 8 hours of work on a single charge).
For decades, many Americans shared a common misperception that Indigenous people feared the geysers at Yellowstone. / THF120298
Until recently, much of the American public has shared a common misperception that few Indigenous people had ever ventured within the boundaries of what became Yellowstone National Park. Story had it that these people were afraid of the geysers, or that they felt that the hissing steam vents were signs of angry gods or evil spirits. In fact, the presence of Indigenous Americans was purposefully erased from the story of Yellowstone National Park, beginning with the first white “scientific” expedition there in 1871. This erasure, which lasted through most of the park’s history, is only recently beginning to change.
Some Indigenous people, in their pursuit of the large herds of bison to the east, created a trail that passed near what is now known as Mammoth Hot Springs. /THF120351
Archaeological evidence now indicates that as far back as 10,000 years ago, several bands of Indigenous people regularly passed through this area, primarily hunting bison, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. In historic times, the area continued to serve as a crossroads for many Indigenous groups—including Crow, Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, and Flathead—who followed the Yellowstone River and other waterways through what eventually became the boundaries of the park. They tracked small buffalo herds, elk, and deer in the mountains and forests during the summer months and followed these animals to the warmer geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin during the bitter winter months. Some of these groups crossed through the area to pursue the great herds of bison in the plains farther east, creating a trail that passed through the area now known as Mammoth Hot Springs and stretching eastward across what is known today as Lamar Valley. Early white hunters, trappers, and explorers not only followed the trails that Indigenous people created, but it is from these people that they first heard the fantastic stories of geothermal wonders in the Yellowstone Basin.
Many early photographs of the wonders of Yellowstone, like this “Grand Group” of geysers, were probably taken by William Henry Jackson, one of the people who accompanied Ferdinand Hayden on his 1871 expedition through what would become the park. / THF120369
The process of Indigenous erasure in Yellowstone began in earnest with the Hayden expedition of 1871—a large, government-funded expedition led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden to study, collect specimens in, and map out the confines of the Yellowstone “wonderland” that had been receiving so much recent attention. Hayden and members of his expedition were able to observe firsthand the places that had been described primarily in stories told by Shoshone and Bannock people—astonishing places like “The White Mountain” (which became known as Mammoth Hot Springs) and the spectacular geysers, bubbling mud pots, and hissing steam vents situated within the geothermal area of the Yellowstone Basin. As a result of this expedition, Hayden laid claim to this unique landscape on behalf of the United States government and the American people, choosing to ignore the longstanding use of the region by Indigenous people. Instead, the expedition report pointed to Yellowstone’s wonders as proof of the country’s “exceptionalism”—that is, Americans’ long-sought evidence that the United States was unique and exceptional when compared with other nations of the world.
Photo of "Sheepeater" Shoshone, William Henry Jackson, 1871. / Public domain photo from National Park Service
By the time of the Hayden Expedition, the only Indigenous people still known to inhabit the area were a by-then considered poor and lowly band of Eastern Shoshone called Sheepeaters (Tukudeka or Tukadika). A wealth of recent archaeological information has pointed to the conclusion that this band had inhabited and roamed this area for thousands of years—not the mere 200 years that early white explorers surmised (a story that then became widely accepted). These people had developed a remarkably sustainable way of life, taking advantage of the once-large population of bighorn sheep for food, clothing, blankets, tools, and bows. Early white trappers observed this band’s self-confidence, intelligence, friendliness, and willingness to trade their fine-quality hide clothing, horn bows, and obsidian arrowheads. Unfortunately, the bighorn sheep population plummeted as the result of diseases brought by white settlers’ domestic sheep. White hunters and settlers also decimated other game and polluted the streams in which these people had fished. No wonder, then, that by the 1870s white explorers of the area described these people as starving and miserable.
In 1903, this monumental stone gateway was completed to mark the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The words “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” inscribed above the arch, are taken directly from the legislation that created Yellowstone back in 1872. / THF120280
The widely publicized and highly celebrated Hayden report rapidly led to the creation of a bill to set the area aside as a national park, a “resort for all classes of people from all portions of the world,” a democratic landscape of tourism. When the question of Indigenous claims to the area under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie was raised, the argument was made that the land was simply too hostile for Indigenous people to live there. Though this was not true, Hayden’s expedition report had already justified the removal of Indigenous people from the area. The bill passed easily, with the help of aggressive lobbying by the Northern Pacific Railroad and the strong desire by members of Congress to use the bill as a way to help unify a Civil War-torn nation. The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act (or, simply, the Yellowstone Act) was placed on President Ulysses S. Grant’s desk on March 1, 1872. President Grant signed it without fanfare. During the 1870s, the Sheepeaters were easily rounded up and exiled to the Wind River (Wyoming) and Fort Hall (Idaho) reservations to live with other bands of Shoshone, along with Bannock and Arapaho people.
Early tourists typically boarded horse-drawn carriages to view the sites at Yellowstone National Park. /THF200464
When Yellowstone became a national park, no funds were allotted to administer or manage it. But an 1877 incident involving an encounter between another Indigenous group and two groups of tourists in the park changed that. The incident involved a group of Nez Perce (Nii mi’ipuu) crossing through the park in an epic flight to avoid the U.S. Army, who was pursuing them to force their removal from their ancestral homeland in eastern Oregon to a tiny reservation in Washington. This incident, which unfortunately involved violence and hostage-taking, created a national media sensation. Many personal accounts of the episode emerged afterward, with some indication that those who were involved sympathized with the plight of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce group managed to successfully evade the army until the soldiers finally caught up with them 40 miles south of the Canadian border—in an attempt to join Sitting Bull’s Lakota band.
As a result of the widespread publicity and furor raised by this incident, Congress finally committed some money to managing the park. As tourism increased, Congress pressured Yellowstone park administrators to control the “savages” because it was assumed that they would endanger the park’s visitors. After that time, park administrators aggressively downplayed any presence of Indigenous people, not wanting the park’s well-heeled guests to risk crossing paths with them, or to even be worried that they might. By 1882, all Indigenous groups had been banned from the park.
Sheepeater Cliff was named after the only Indigenous people that lived on in public memory as having inhabited the Yellowstone area. / Photo by NPS/Jim Peaco
Once the real presence of Indigenous people had been erased from the landscape, park superintendents, railroad publicists, and tourists alike could look back—safely, nostalgically, and romantically—on the one-time presence of Indigenous people there. For example, when park administrators came across the remnants of wickiups (temporary shelters made from poles leaned and tied together, covered with brush or grass) eight miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs, they assumed these were made and used by the Sheepeaters. Since this was the only group still in the public memory as having inhabited Yellowstone, they felt that they were honoring their one-time presence by naming the natural feature near there “Sheepeater Cliff”—though this band did not live in that area and likely did not build these shelters. Once established, the perception that no Indigenous people had ever set foot inside the current boundaries of Yellowstone National Park (except for the Sheepeaters) persisted for decades.
In recent years, however, archaeologists, historians, and Indigenous activists have begun to correct the narrative of Indigenous presence and habitation on this land. In addition, administrators at Yellowstone National Park have also been making a concerted effort to elevate Indigenous voices and incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems into their research and programs (see, for example: https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/yellowstone-150-native-american-voices/ and https://www.nps.gov/yell/getinvolved/150-years-of-yellowstone.htm). Today, they recognize at least 27 distinct American tribes that have historic and present-day connections to the land and resources of the park. As champions of ecological connectivity, Indigenous people have been galvanizing action to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife, helping to relocate bison culled from the park, raising awareness on living with bears and wolves in the wider landscape, and enlightening administrators and the public on other aspects of environmental conservation related to the Yellowstone ecosystem. For the 150th anniversary of the park in 2022, administrators have been “shining a light” on Indigenous people whose past, present, and future are an essential part of Yellowstone’s story. As Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, proclaims, “This isn’t just about the last century and a half. We also want to use this anniversary to do a better job of fully recognizing many American Indian nations that lived in this area for thousands of years prior to Yellowstone becoming a park…. The engagement we’re doing now will help set a stronger foundation for collaboration well into the future.”
As erasure shifts toward inclusion—through published materials, behind-the-scenes collaboration, and public programming—the historic and present-day connections of Indigenous people to Yellowstone National Park will continue to play an important role in the park’s future.
The photograph I came across in The Henry Ford’s archives in 1985. /THF120353
Back in 1985, I was looking through The Henry Ford’s archives for images that depicted vacation destinations to complete a museum book I was writing called Leisure and Entertainment in America. There, in our collection, I came across the most amazing photograph of a hotel that I had ever seen. It looked like the outdoors had been brought inside. A great lobby dominated the scene, featuring a mammoth fireplace made of massive boulders. Real, full-size logs supported the balconies that rose several stories. In the midst of all this grandeur, comfortable Mission-style rockers, settees, and handwoven rugs were scattered about.
What was this place? I wondered. Did it still exist? Could I go there?
This was my first encounter with the Old Faithful Inn, which is situated alongside Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful. As it turns out, Old Faithful Inn is quite significant in its own right, as it was not only the first rustic hotel of the Western national parks, but it also set the standard for rustic lodgings and manmade structures in other national parks.
What was the story behind this unique place?
Photographs like this one of Yellowstone Lake, from the 1870s, encouraged early tourism in the park. Note the man fishing, lower left. / THF120349
During the first few decades after Yellowstone became a national park in 1872, accommodations inside the park were, admittedly, spotty. The small number of well-to-do tourists who could afford the trip to Yellowstone during this time expected the pleasures of the high-class, comfortable lodgings they were used to on their European vacations or nearer to home along the East Coast. The first lodgings near Old Faithful were generally ramshackle establishments, built quickly and cheaply. When a lunch station/hotel constructed there in 1884—nicknamed “The Shack”—burned down, park administrators were actually relieved. They had considered it an eyesore.
Before the Old Faithful Inn existed, the Fountain Hotel—typical of Yellowstone hotels at the time—provided comfortable lodging 10 miles north of Old Faithful. / THF203310
Tourism increased when the Northern Pacific Railroad established the “Grand Tour” route through the park for four- to five-day horse-and-carriage tours. At key stops like Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake, the railroad had built some of the nicer hotels in the park. But Old Faithful was located 10 miles south of the route, and comfortable lodgings were already available at the privately-run Fountain Hotel near the Paint Pots (bubbling mud pots) thermal feature. Railroad executives were reluctant to take a chance on building a hotel so far off the beaten track.
Old Faithful was such a dramatic attraction, it is surprising that it was not part of the original Grand Tour route. / THF120359
But, in 1894, park administrators passed a special regulation that lodging could be situated ⅛ of a mile from Old Faithful geyser rather than the usual ¼ mile required between lodgings and natural features. This changed everything. Within a few years, Harry W. Child, entrepreneurial president of the Yellowstone Park Association (which oversaw the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transportation and lodgings), began making plans to build a respectable hotel at Old Faithful. He initially engaged Seattle-based architect A.W. Spalding, who designed a hotel much like the other Yellowstone hotels that were reminiscent of European and East Coast hotels. Spalding’s design was never built, as it apparently did not meet the expectations of railroad executives.
The Saranac Inn, a rustic lodging on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. / THF126056
It was then that Child turned to his young friend—self-taught San Diego-based architect Robert Reamer—to design something more in the manner of rustic “great camps” of the Adirondacks. Combining the influence of California bungalows (especially the idea of bringing the roofline low to the ground) with the rustic trappings of the Adirondack lodge, Reamer designed a hotel that was radically different from anything seen before but seemed to perfectly fit Yellowstone’s exotic setting.
As seen in this 1908–1909 postcard of the front porch, locally obtained lodgepole pines were used for the ground floor of the Inn, while rhyolite rock (which can be glimpsed in the background) formed much of the building’s foundation. /THF120292
Reamer’s design was completed and approved in 1902, and actual construction of the building began in June 1903. It took 13 months to complete, over a long winter that was particularly bitter. About 40 skilled artisans were hired for the work, hailing from nearby Montana towns like West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Livingston. They were a hardy crew, facing many hardships while making swift work of the construction. Materials were mostly obtained nearby, including lodgepole pine and rhyolite rock (an unusual type of rock produced by Yellowstone’s volcanic eruptions). A temporary sawmill was built eight miles to the south to produce the many boards of lumber needed for the project. A Livingston, Montana, blacksmith named George Colpitts and his assistants hand-forged the wrought-iron work for Old Faithful Inn, including the massive front door hardware, the fireplace clock and tools, and all the original guest room door numbers and locks. The total cost of construction was $140,000.
Original façade of Old Faithful Inn, 1905, before the east and West Wings and the extended front porch were added. / THF120361
When it opened on June 1, 1904, Old Faithful Inn was a dramatic tour de force. It seemed rooted in the landscape, as if it had risen directly from the earth. On its exterior, the steep gable roof dominated (for both aesthetic reasons and the very practical one of having to withstand 20-foot drifts of snow in winter). Cedar shingles covered the roof and upper siding, with dormer windows that seemed to pop out in odd places (some were real, others just decorative). The building’s interwoven log construction not only gave it a look of permanence and solidity but also transformed it, in essence, into a gigantic log cabin.
Postcard of the great hall lobby, 1904–1905. / THF120294
Inside, the great hall rose 76½ feet—seven stories in all—with square and diamond windowpanes that filtered light in. Upright poles and beams supporting each balcony were made from lodgepole pine tree trunks, with thick branches attached to the trunks at Y-shaped angles. Balconies and stairways were supported by smaller pine branches found around the area, adding interest with their twisted, curved, and gnarled shapes. A trapeze-like wooden platform near the ceiling of the Inn, called the “Crow’s Nest,” originally held a string quartet—who performed before dinner so guests could mingle, and after dinner when the lobby was transformed into a dance hall. (The Crow’s Nest unfortunately closed when it was deemed unstable after a disastrous earthquake in 1959). The fireplace dominated: 15 by 15 feet at its base, with eight hearths, and rising to a tapered pyramidal shape of 41 feet high. Near the top of it was a huge 14-foot windup clock designed by Reamer. Electric fixtures simulating candlelight were placed discreetly around the space.
Postcard of the dining room at Old Faithful Inn, 1904–1905. / THF120296
Behind the great hall was the dining room, with split logs covering an open-pitched roof. Similar to the great hall, it was also dominated by a massive stone fireplace. Guests originally sat at long, family-style tables and could obtain a meal for 75 cents. A dinner bell atop the Inn’s rooftop summoned guests to dinner.
A typical room for lodgers in the Old House, circa 1905. / THF120355
The lobby and upper mezzanines were filled with Mission-style tables, settees, rockers, desks, and Old Hickory tables and chairs. (Old Hickory was a Martinsville, Indiana, company founded in 1892 that specialized in rustic furniture made out of hickory, with woven, hickory-rushed seats and backs.) One hundred forty log-walled rooms for lodging led off the great hall, on two floors, to the east and to the west. Rooms were furnished simply, with brass, iron, or wood beds; natural wood dressers, chairs, nightstands, and desks; and washstands with chamber pots. Some had cushioned window seats. The rooms had steam heat and sinks with running water (communal bathrooms were, and still are, available down the hall.) This original set of rooms, which cost four dollars per night to lodge in when the Inn opened, became known as the Old House.
It is believed that Harry Child’s wife Adelaide (or Addy), who accompanied her husband on the initial trip to hire Reamer, had a hand in the furnishings, decorations, and details. The delicacy of the balconies, stairway railings, window placements, and Mission-style furniture shows her influence. As a result of this collaboration, both men and women felt comfortable and relaxed here. The Inn, in essence, neutralized gender and class distinctions, encouraging impromptu encounters and informality.
The radically different look of Old Faithful Inn prompted the National Pacific Railroad to justify it in its promotional materials. / THF120290
Old Faithful Inn was different from the usual lodging, and Northern Pacific Railroad promoters figured they had better explain this to potential guests. They wrote this statement in the Inn’s defense when it first opened, just in case guests rejected the notion of a rustic hotel: “The Inn is not in the least a freaky affair…. It is a thoroughly modern and artistic structure in every respect—modern in its appointments and artistic in the carrying out of an unconventional and original scheme.”
They needn’t have worried about guests’ reactions. Old Faithful Inn was an immediate hit with the public. One guest, a Mrs. E.H. Johnson, in 1905, recounted: “And then we came to the Inn, the most unique and perfect place; it is the craftsman’s dream realized. My room alone is a paradise of restfulness though in a rough and rustic fashion…. At luncheon we had another treat. The dining room has its own charm.”
Old Faithful Inn after the new porch and veranda were completed in 1927. / THF120323
Old Faithful Inn was so popular, in fact, that in 1913–1914, 100 guest rooms were added to create the East Wing. And, in 1927, with the increasing number of tourists coming by automobile, 150 more rooms were added to create the West Wing. Although the interiors of these later rooms were more modern than those in the Old House, a consistent look was maintained on the exterior for an overall cohesive effect. A covered porch was added to the front of the building in 1927—again to accommodate automobile traffic—with an open veranda above for viewing Old Faithful eruptions. (For more on the impact of automobiles on the national parks, see my blog post, “Automobiles Enter the National Parks.”)
The rustic Lodge, shown on this Bryce Canyon pennant, was constructed in 1925. / THF239283
Old Faithful Inn really started something. The railroad companies, who had made the Western national parks accessible and controlled many of the concessions in the early parks, realized that the rustic style suited these places, and the style spread quickly—first to the upscale hotels, then to other manmade structures in the parks. The National Park Service, formed in 1916, eventually chose the rustic style as its standard architecture across the entire park system. This style, which colloquially became known as “Parkitecture,” reached its culmination with the Depression-era projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Old Faithful Inn was a very atypical hotel of its era. Most resort hotels at the time were intended to serve as civilized oases from the wilderness. Old Faithful Inn, the first rustic-style lodge of the West, was designed to fit in and become part of the wilderness experience. Somehow, Robert Reamer recognized this when he created what was truly a one-of-a-kind national park lodging.
Snapshot of the author at Yellowstone National Park in 1985, standing on the Upper Geyser Basin trail with Old Faithful Inn in the background. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Soon after I first viewed the image of the Old Faithful Inn lobby in 1985, my husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Yellowstone National Park, and we stayed at the Old Faithful Inn. Eighty years after that photograph was taken, it was like we had entered it in real life. We stayed in one of those tiny, log-walled, chamber-potted rooms in the Old House. It was noisy but thrilling to be in that room—to become part of that place. We returned to Yellowstone National Park in 2014, almost 30 years later, and have returned year after year since then (except in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). We have stayed at the Old Faithful Inn every year—in the Old House, the East Wing, and the West Wing. We plan to stay there again when we return to Yellowstone National Park this summer. Somehow, it always feels comfortable, welcoming, and timeless—like we’re coming home.
Snapshot of the author at West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, 2014. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
In the face of a challenge, a walk is one of the best ways to jump-start imagination and pave a creative path forward. Take that walk in nature, or, better yet, spend a few days in nature without technology, and research shows our problem-solving abilities soar by as much as 50%.
Inventors and problem solvers need a constant supply of potent inspiration. Books and journal articles, as well as brainstorms with mentors, colleagues, and friends, help. However, in many instances our greatest teacher lives right outside our doors. There, we can find knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a solid track record of success. Nature has the answers we need to solve every problem—if only we know where to look and how to ask the right questions.
Illustration by James Round
What Is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Whether we’re working on a challenge related to product development, process generation, policy creation, or organizational design, one of the smartest questions we can ask is: “What would nature do?” Asking this question, and then studying nature to find the answers, is a way to discover new sustainable solutions that solve our design challenges without negatively impacting the planet.
Undoubtedly, biomimicry is best learned by doing. It’s a field that requires us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts as we roll up our sleeves to dig deep (sometimes literally into the dirt) to understand, interpret, and then utilize nature’s design principles to solve the challenges we face in our lives.
“Biomimicry applies strategies from the natural world to solve human design challenges,” said Alexandra Ralevski, Ph.D., director of AskNature at the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montana. “This is a field that has the power to radically transform any industry.”
Being a Bridge: Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute
With varied fields of expertise, including scientific knowledge, business planning, design thinking, and operations, to name just a few, practitioners of biomimicry serve as the bridge between professional groups like scientists, business managers, policymakers, engineers, and designers, who are often siloed from one another.
If all the world is an orchestra of voices, those who study biomimicry are the conductors making room for each of them, ensuring that they rise, shine, and harmonize together for the benefit of all.
It’s impossible to utter a single word about the theory and practice of biomimicry without paying homage to Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed “nature nerd.” Benyus’ groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has made its way onto bookshelves and into the hearts, hands, and minds of problem solvers.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. / Photo courtesy of Biomimicry Institute
“We’re awake now,” she said. “And the question is, how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”
To explore this question and bring passionate and multitalented collaborators into community with one another, Benyus co-founded the nonprofit that would become the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana.
Over a decade later, the organization continues to provide education, support, and innovation inspiration for anyone and everyone who wants to bring the study and application of nature’s design genius into their work and into their lives.
One of the best ways to illustrate biomimicry’s power is to look at some examples.
Whales and Wind
A trio composed of a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur created the most efficient fans and turbines in the world through inspiration found in humpback whales. On the surface, this may seem like an odd connection. How could humpback whales possibly teach a highly skilled group to build a turbine? It turns out that these whales were experts at the exact function these humans wanted to achieve.
The bumps on a humpback whale’s flipper are nature’s answer to what makes a wind turbine extra efficient. / Illustration by James Round
Humpback whales are among the world’s most agile animals. Though they can reach 16 meters (52 feet) in length and 40 tons in weight, they can lift a large portion of their bodies up out of the ocean and into the air in an acrobatic feat that leaves whale watchers breathless. A single jump or leap (called a breach) requires humpback whales to expend only 0.075% of their daily energy intake. Not only is the breach a stunning display of athleticism, it’s also a remarkably efficient action.
Marine biologist Frank Fish suspected the bumps (called tubercles) on the leading edges of the whale’s flippers held the secret to bending the ocean waters to their will. Working with Fish to study this mystery was engineer Phillip Watts. “I had been working in biomechanics and understood the importance of biomimicry, drawing engineering ideas from evolution,” shared Watts.
Together, Fish and Watts found that humpback whales achieved a rare point of design greatness: The tubercles on their flippers could increase lift while simultaneously reducing drag—a genius combination that gives these magnificent creatures such remarkable agility.
Along with a third collaborator, entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, Fish and Watts decided to model their turbine design on the humpback’s flippers. Not surprisingly, their newly fabricated turbines not only produced supreme performance like the whale’s but were highly efficient. Soon after, the trio’s newly formed corporation, WhalePower, became a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient rotating devices for various applications.
“Because nature had done so much work on this [for us],” said Dewar, “we were able to understand what was possible.”
For the Birds
Transportation aficionados know that Japan’s Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, is one of the world’s finest examples of efficient and elegant design. What many people don’t know is that the Shinkansen has a bird to thank for its performance. Known for its silent diving abilities, the kingfisher can break the water while barely making a sound or a splash to claim its favorite meal—minnows and stickleback fish.
The sleek shape of a certain bird’s beak is nature’s answer to conquering a bullet train’s unwelcome sonic boom. / Illustration by James Round
Shinkansen engineers faced a serious structural challenge while designing the bullet train: It created a sonic boom as it emerged from tunnels at high speeds. One of the team’s engineers, who had observed the kingfisher’s precise diving technique, suggested they mimic the bird’s beak shape in the train’s design. Voila! The sonic boom disappeared.
The bullet train’s unique design also had other unforeseen benefits. Its new nose safely increased travel speeds, lowered fuel consumption, and reduced operating costs.
Nature-Inspired Agriculture Infrastructure
A beehive’s structure, a spider web’s power of attraction, and an ice plant’s water storage system are nature’s answers to creating more sustainable food systems. / Illustration by James Round
To promote local agriculture, NexLoop focuses on creating renewable water infrastructure for sustainable food systems. Its main product, AquaWeb, captures, stores and distributes just the right amount of water at just the right time for local food production.
How does it strike this balance? AquaWeb takes its cues from the efficiency of nature, incorporating learnings from multiple organisms: beehives to create structural strength, spider webs to capture water, ice plants to store water and mycelium to distribute water.
Restoring Nature Using Nature’s Models
Biomimicry also guided the strategy of Nucleário, winner of the Ray of Hope Prize, an initiative of the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Company founders wanted to repopulate the forests of their home country, Brazil, where young tree seedlings face overwhelmingly adverse survival odds. Their roots are choked by grasses while their leaves are devoured by leaf-cutter ants.
Of the small handful of trees that reach their first birthday, 95% don’t live to see their second. It’s these long-shot odds that Nucleário sought to combat.
Like NexLoop, Nucleário combined the designs of several natural models to create its tree seedling pods—from the protective abilities of leaf litter and water accumulation talents of bromeliads (think of a pineapple) to the graceful air dispersal skills of anemocoric seeds.
“Our connection to nature and deep-rooted gratitude for all life inspires and sustains us,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. “We look to nature to guide our decisions, from design to raw material selection and everything in between.”
Combining the natural models that inspired them, Nucleário’s founders have built a planting system that provides protection as well as nutrient and moisture maintenance with less human intervention and tending. Their design is both lightweight and strong, with water chambers that collect and distribute water the same way nature does.
Hooked by Nature
Burdock burrs inspired the creation of Velcro during the mid-20th century.
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was hunting and noticed his pants were covered with burdock burrs. He wondered how the seedpods could hold on and took to his microscope, examining the burrs’ “hooks” and the way they clung to fabric. After years of research, de Mestral was granted a U.S. patent in 1955 for what became Velcro, his famous hook-and-loop fastener.
What’s Next in Biomimicry?
“Using nature as a model for sustainability means that we always have a benchmark for our designs,” said AskNature’s Ralevski. “This benchmarking is critical to determine success and improve our iterations.”
A hallmark of nature, and by extension biomimicry, is that there is a progression of continuous improvement over time within the context of a specific situation—which could include the geography, environmental circumstances, and economic situation in which a design solution must exist and operate.
Biomimicry successes in energy management, transportation, and architectural design are spurring design experiments in fields as varied as medicine, materials science, textiles, and urban planning. We’re also beginning to see social science applications of biomimicry in community organizations, economic development, and communication systems.
“Biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug,” said Janine Benyus. “It will be gratitude and an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."
To explore some examples of biomimicry in artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford, check out this expert set.