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Biomimicry: How a seashell inspired the invention of the cochlear implant

Posted by Diego Fonstad
Diego Fonstad
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on Monday, 14 February 2011
in The Mother of Invention

Teachable Moment: This is a great example of how stepping away from a problem can often lead to novel solutions.  It can also be used to illustrate how working with a mock-up of the target can provide novel insights.

From the Cosmos Article: FOR 10 YEARS, Graeme Clark had been working tirelessly to develop an implant that would help the deaf to hear. The theory made sense. The electronics had been developed, and the design was near finalised.

But there was one seemingly insurmountable hurdle: how to actually get the implant into the intricate spiral of the inner ear.

During one Melbourne summer in 1977, he took his young children to the beach to escape the heat. While they were playing in the shallows, Clark noticed a seashell lying on the ground - and that its helical structure was a crude replica of the human cochlea.

Inspiration hit. He pulled up some grass blades and experimented with teasing them into the shell's opening. Owing to their flexible tips and stiff bases, the blades slid smoothly into the tightening spiral. It revealed a simple solution to a complex problem.

References: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/online/3737/bionic-man

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