Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

13 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Velcro: From Nature to NASA, Animated

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Innovation that sticks, or how to turn nature’s aggravations into universal usefulness.

This year, Velcro — one of the world’s most beloved multipurpose inventions — celebrates its 60th birthday, and today marks the 53rd anniversary of Velcro’s US patent. The miracle adhesive was the brainchild of Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One afternoon, as he was taking a walk in the forest, he noticed the that burrs — the seeds of burdock thistle — stuck to his clothes and wondered how they did that. So he excitedly rushed home, stuck one under the microscope, and spent the next ten years perfecting nature’s brilliant hook-and-loop adhesion mechanism, eventually producing one of history’s smartest applications of biomimetic design.

To celebrate Velcro’s birthday, here are three different animated short films that tell the same great story of ingenuity and perseverance in just over a minute each.

From HowStuffWorks, here’s a characteristically short-and-sweet evaluation of the invention. Though I have to disagree with their 2/5 on the benefits-to-humanity scale — anything that’s good enough for NASA should be good enough for at least a 4.

From Pan-African media portal ABN Digital, a beat-by-beat recap on the chronology of Velcro’s invention and its impact as a zipper alternative.

And my favorite, from designer Antonio Alarcón Román, a delightfully fuzzy motion graphics narrative:

And a big “THANK YOU” to my wonderful intern, Adam Rubin, who is doing an admirable job of cataloging notable birthdays, deaths and historical anniversaries for me to find interesting content around.

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04 MAY, 2011

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

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What the fountain of youth has to do with robots and unlearning our faulty thinking.

Earlier this year, we looked at how the web is changing the way we think, alongside 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. But many of these prognoses seem to be tragically dystopian — could there, perhaps, be a more hopeful outlook for our technology-encrusted future? After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, trying to figure out just that. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

Stevenson proses a number of mental reboots that shift some of our present cognitive bad habits, from linear thinking about the future to hierarchical, top-down views of innovation.

Part trendhunting, part rigorous research, part cultural anthropology, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future may just be our generation’s version of Bill Brysons’s iconic A Short History of Nearly Everything — a bold and entertaining blueprint for a future that’s ours to shape and ours to live.

Illustration by John Dykes for WSJ

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13 APRIL, 2011

David Friedman’s Portraits of Inventors

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What Instagram has to do with ice fishing and specialty chairs for canoodling.

For the past few years, New-York-based photographer David Friedman has been taking portraits of inventors — those ordinary people who came up with ordinary-seeming things that transform lives, often our lives, in extraordinary ways. Rather than lofty and fluff-padded, like many such efforts tend to be, these profiles blend humility with creative restlessness, demystifying invention and reframing it not as the idle blessing of some arbitrary muse but as the product of combinatorial creativity and one’s everyday life experience.

STEVEN SASSON: THE DIGITAL CAMERA

If you’re an Instagram obsessive like we are, you’re grateful for the advances in digital imaging on a daily basis. But they didn’t just “happen.” In 1975, American electrical engineer Steven Sasson began exploring ideas that eventually led to his invention of the digital camera, the patent for which was officially issued in 1978, paving the way for the imaging revolution. This portrait was taken shortly before President Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology.

The options the average person has today for imaging [are] unlimited. You walk around with you cell phone or digital camera today, and the pictures are excellent, they’re reliably produced, you can share them instantly. I like to say to inventors, ‘Be aware that your invention is in an environment when the rest of the world is inventing along with you, and so by the time the idea matures, it’ll be in a totally different world. I think that was the case with the digital camera.”

via Swiss Miss

TAMI GALT: FOLDING WAGON

Looking for an easy way to cary her groceries back from the farmers market that didn’t make her look like a wire-cart-dragging old lady, Tami Galt came up with teh Fold It & Go portable wagon, quitting her 9-to-5 job to work on the seemingly kooky creation.

One day, my boss was yelling at one of my coworkers and I’m like, ‘I gotta do something else, this isn’t working.’ So I just looked through my book of ideas, I looked at which one I liked the best, and said, ‘That’s what I’m working on!’”

JERRY FORD: WHEELCHAIR BRAKE SYSTEM

When crop farmer Jerry Ford‘s son was working at a nursing home and noted the need for a braking system that would prevent wheelchair accidents, Ford decided to invent one.

The cost of the falls is huge, and the technology is there to prevent them. Seat belts in cars actually prevent you from getting more seriously injured in an accident, where my automatic brake system prevents the accident from ever happening.”

TOM ROERING: AMPHIBIOUS VEHICLE

Ice fisherman Tom Roering‘s lightweight drivable amphibious vehicle for land, water and ice that doubles as an ice-fishing shelter and can also be adapted as an ice rescue vehicle.

Ice is never predictable, so each year there is loss of property as well as loss of life.”

BRENT FARLEY: MULTIPLE

Brent Farley‘s first patent was a “chair for aiding the [conjugal] relationships for the confirmed” — that is, a chair for having sex on. Farley went on to become one the most prolific of Friedman’s inventors, his creations ranging from the numbingly utilitarian (“self-hanging hammer” anyone?) to the gobsmackingly kooky (“wing walker,” we’re looking at you).

I look for the slightest problem that I can see, and ask myself, ‘Could there really be, maybe, a little bit better way to actually do that?”

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