Posted by: cochinblogger | October 5, 2011

Biomimicry and Umbrella Design

When it comes to umbrellas, size definitely matters. It’s convenient to carry a small umbrella, especially if one walks and travels by bus, as I do. But in heavy rain, a small umbrella offers skimpy protection. And if there’s a strong breeze whipping the rain along, one could as well have left the umbrella behind at home for all the difference it makes. Besides, I often carry camera gear, and though it is housed in a locally made waterproof bag, I dare not expose it to the elements for too long.

So, in desperation, I began carrying a big umbrella, the kind favored by old-timers. Walking in heavy rain became a pleasure as I strode confidently under the expanded circle of protection. However, the flip side was that carrying it around was a terrible nuisance. I had to swing the big umbrella like a walking stick when it was not in use. I felt like a man walking a dog, except that I was not walking a dog but an umbrella.

Inside buses, there was no question of swinging it around. In fact, I had to be careful to see that the umbrella didn’t poke a fellow commuter or wet his clothes. With the camera bag and lunch bag already dangling from each shoulder, managing an overgrown umbrella became an intricate problem in logistics. Where could I lay the umbrella down when I had to pull out the money to pay the bus conductor? Big umbrellas have a J-shaped handle, and so I’d hang it on an iron bar running inside the bus, else I’d hang it on the strap of my office bag.

So, beset by umbrella-carrying problems as I was, I considered adopting a style of carrying big umbrellas (see photo above) I’d observed before (see To Carry An Umbrella) but dismissed out of hand as being undignified and old-fashioned. It has the major advantage that one’s hands are freed up. But was the convenience versus dignity trade-off worth it? Only elderly rustics seemed to favor this method of carrying the umbrella: tuck its handle into the shirt collar, and let it ride piggy-back style on one’s back. Here, take a closer look.

Notice the expertise with which the umbrella is carried! Observe how lightly it rides on the back, how freely the arms swing, the symmetry of the vertical bisection, the carefree stride! I was envious, but couldn’t summon up the nerve to hoist my umbrella on my back. Could an urban yuppie take to this rustic mode of umbrella conveyance without risking irreparable damage to his prestige?

Another case in point is given below. Notice how the mundu has been wrapped around the tip of the umbrella, anchoring it firmly in place. Not even a thundering typhoon can dislodge this umbrella from its secure perch.

I was at this point sorely tempted to throw caution to the winds and hoist my trusty umbrella on my back, but desisted. And then one day, I beheld this from the window of the bus I was seated in.

Now, this is no elderly yokel! No, sir, what we have is a cocky youngster with a spring in his step. As the bus continued on its way, I began analyzing my inhibition against carrying the umbrella like this. What if it was a style favored by elderly rustics anyway? This youngster had showed me the light. Why should I care for what onlookers may think? Didn’t I value my comfort above the opinions of passers-by who would be a part of my life for all of five seconds? As I got down from the bus, I thought no more: with one smooth flowing action, I hoisted my umbrella on my back, tucking the handle under my collar. I looked around circumspectly. Nobody seemed to notice anything amiss. I began walking ahead. The umbrella began to thump against my back, but a small adjustment in my gait took care of that.

It was as I was passing a cinema theater that I became aware of the watchman staring at me. I first tried to ignore him, but my curiosity got the better of me and I looked back. There was no doubt about it! He was staring at me, and what’s more, he looked as though he would burst out laughing any minute. I don’t know what got into me, but I stared him down eye for eye, and then gave him my best Mr. Bean smile. His face became indecipherable. I continued walking to my favorite sugiyan joint and sipped my chai.

Maybe it was the aroma of the tea that did it, but an inspired train of thought struck me like a bolt from the blue. It began with a key insight that made me smile as I savored my tea: carrying a big umbrella around was as inconvenient as having a permanent hard-on. And with that realization dawned the solution to the umbrella logistics problem: this was an umbrella design problem for whose solution we only had to look to Mother Nature. Biomimicry! The umbrella in its normal state would be flaccid. When ready for use, press a button, and hey presto, a fluid would rush into the designated compartments, causing the umbrella to stiffen and assume its appointed phallic shape. Rigid now, the umbrella could be unfurled and put to use. After the rain, press another button: the fluid would withdraw into its hiding hole, and the umbrella would resume its flaccid state. In this avatar, it could be tucked away anywhere.

I hope any umbrella tycoon who is reading this and decides to produce a prototype will credit me with the idea as he laughs his way to the bank.

For more about biomimicry, see this: Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in Action


  1. LOL! The idea will put Popy out of business.

  2. Then now’s the time to develop a special viagra: for umbrellas somewhat past their prime..

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