Engineer Marc Isambard Brunel, (father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel) discovered the perfect method for tunnelling through mud and clay to build the Thames Tunnel under London by observing the action of the shipworm, which tunnels through the hulls of boats, lining the hold with a hard chalky material as it goes. Mirroring the worm’s action, Brunel designed a revolutionary and ingenious tunnelling system, in which workers could simultaneous cut and line a tunnel with brickwork to seal it.
On its opening in 1843, the Thames Tunnel was described as the ‘Eight Wonder of the World’, and Brunel’s shipworm system is the basis of tunnelling methods still used today — a version of it was used in the construction of the 50- kilometre (31-mile) Channel Tunnel, built 40 metres (130 feet) below the seabed.
The barrier created by thinking “I may make a fool of myself if I ask this” can mean that starting points and new directions for thinking remain undiscovered. Always ask the questions that seem too obvious, or those you think you’re supposed to know the answers to. When industrial designer Kenneth Grange was briefed to develop new express trains for British Rail in the 1970s, a seeming naive question popped into his head; “What exactly are the buffers on the locomotive for?” Expecting to be told “They’re to stop the trains crashing into stations, stupid!”, instead he learnt that they were for shunting carriages — a redundant activity from a bygone era.
Inventor Owen Maclaren created the first collapsible baby buggy by utilizing the system designed for the folding undercarriages of Spitfire fighter planes from World War II, while James Dyson used the cyclone systems used to suck up sawdust in sawmills and applied it to the home vacuum (see also Fix Your Frustrations, page 96). Both revolutionized previously entrenched designs. A spiral ramp might be fairly standard in an inner-city car park, but it is highly remarkable as an interior walkway of a public art gallery. If you find a current system disappointing or inadequate, try borrowing one from another field.