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"Propeller for Vessels." Patent no. 3908, filed by James D. Fraser, 1874


Patent no. 3908. Filing year 1874.

"Propeller for Vessels," James D. Fraser.

The influence of nature on human invention can be seen as early as 3,000 years ago, when spiders inspired the production of silk in China. In a more recent case, a Swiss engineer in 1948 came up with the hook system known as Velcro after examining how burrs clung to his dog's fur after a walk. In the 20th century, the notion of replicating nature's processes in technology even spawned a field of scientific study, most recently given the name "biomimetics," but also known as "biognosis" or "bionics."

It sounds like a sensible notion. If nature took thousands of years to perfect a process, why not just imitate it? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Many natural systems, such as a fish's gills or a bird's wings, are immensely complex in design, usually down to a microscopic level. In short, just because an invention is influenced by nature doesn't mean it will work, as James D. Fraser of Pictou, Nova Scotia, discovered.

Fraser's "Vibrating Propeller," patented in 1874, seems to have been an attempt to make boats move more like fish. It consisted of a series of propellers on crank shafts mounted on the bottom of a boat. Rather than the circular rotation of normal propellers, these propellers oscillated back and forth. The buckets on the propellers were designed to face edgewise when turning one way and turn flat when moving the other way.

It sounds all right in theory -- the propellers would oscillate and swivel like a fish's fin. The bucket orientation could be reversed for backwards motion, as well. Fraser's system may have worked on models, but it did not have much of a future.

There are other problems with mounting propellers on the bottoms of boats. The risk of damage from striking the bottom of the seabed or any other underwater object is much greater than with regular rear-mounted propellers. As well, the propeller system would likely have to be dismantled for the boat to be dry-docked.

Invention, of course, always carries the risk of failure, but with biomimetic invention the risk seems that much greater, given the difficulty of reproducing nature's sophistication. James D. Fraser is, in fact, in good company. Leonardo da Vinci toiled on a number of machines that tried to replicate bird flight, to no avail. Another Canadian James Fraser (no relation to James D. Fraser) also tried to imitate birds with his own doomed flying machine, patented in 1908. As countless similar attempts have shown, there is another similarity between biology and invention: like nature, the world of invention is harshly Darwinian -- only the fittest designs survive.


Hooper, Rowan. "Ideas Stolen Right From Nature." Wired News.
(accessed October 25, 2005).

"Biomimetics." The Economist Technology Quarterly. June 9, 2005, pp. 35-37.

Vincent, Julian F.V. "Stealing Ideas from Nature." Deployable Structures. Edited by S. Pellegrino. Vienna: Springer, pp. 51-58.

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