William Kamkwamba Talks Windmills With Jon Stewart

Last night [Jon Stewart] interviewed [William Kamkwamba] on The Daily Show. [William] is the young man from Malawi who at the age of 14 built a windmill generator out of discarded items. Now at 22 years old, [William] is working on his SAT scores in hopes that he can attend college in the US. We get a bit more insight about him and his build as he promotes his new book.

[William] was 14 when he completed the three month long build of his generator. He had previously dropped out of school because “my country was experiencing some famine”. The only resource he had at his disposal was a library that is funded by the US government (sounds like that turned out to be a good investment!).

After seeing a photograph of a windmill he was driven to succeed by the mantra: “somewhere somebody did it, it didn’t fall from the sky”. He goes on to explain how he built a circuit breaker (pictured above) to prevent a short circuit from burning his house down. Two nails are wrapped in wire with a magnet in the middle. If there is a short circuit, one of the nails will repel the magnet while the other attracts it. The nail is connect to a switch and when it moves to one side the switch is opened, breaking the circuit. Upon hearing this, [Stewart] makes the obvious comparison between [Macgyver] and [Kamkwamba].

One of the most endearing points in the interview is a story [William] shares about his first experience with the Internet. He was invited to the TED conference in 2007 and someone asked him if he’d used the Internet. Of course he hadn’t and they then started talking about using Google. When the search engine was explained to him he suggested that “windmill” be entered as a query. When millions of hits were returned his revelation was “Where was this Google all this time?”.

This is an amazing story that we can’t get enough of here at Hack a Day. Make sure you don’t miss the interview which starts 12:25 into the episode.

36 thoughts on “William Kamkwamba Talks Windmills With Jon Stewart

  1. I saw that interview last night and really enjoyed it. It’s a good reminder that good things can still be accomplished without expensive components or the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, I get the jitters if I can’t Google something I’m working on, but this is great testimony to human ingenuity and perseverance.

    This is also a great example of the novel approach someone can take when operating in a vacuum. It’s easy to order / build a circuit breaker with an existing design. To come up with this design took some thought and experimentation. How cool is that?!

  2. Wow umm amazing story but I will have to find a more suitable place to watch it. why on earth do i have to watch a 20 second ad before the video starts and then when i skip forward to the part i want it forces me to watch another 1:30 of ads? I will post a link if i find one to an ad free version.

  3. First ever reply at HaD; I was stoned last night after a hard night of research and this guy was absolutely inspirational. Can’t stop telling the story of last night’s Daily Show to my family and friends. It’s amazing how determined humans can be… while we live in a world with so much technology, this man grew up with none and actually replicated a piece of “exotic” technology… Then upon seeing what the first world has, he’s amazed and so motivated. Crazy, just crazy.

  4. “Two nails are wrapped in wire with a magnet in the middle. If there is a short circuit, one of the nails will repel the magnet while the other attracts it. The nail is connect to a switch and when it moves to one side the switch is opened, breaking the circuit”

    But it will oscillate !

  5. @David – this kid didn’t have a whole lot of say in who built a library in his area. Maybe he should protest the library to make you happy. I’m just glad that he’s trying to make more of himself.

    And in terms of him not working hard, this is what he did in his spare time while trying not to starve. He still gets my kudos.

  6. David isn’t likely a troll even though he may look like one. He likely actually believes the stuff he spews, or more correctly respews from Beck et al.

    He is most likely just a disgruntled white supremacist looking for excuses.

    Oh, he’ll deny it and say he’s actually simply opposed to large government growth, huge spending, or restrictions of liberties – but he will always frame as he did here in purely ethnic and racial terms even though they are out of context.
    He also won’t explain why he wasn’t speaking out over the last eight years when all those exact things he claims he is against were far more out of control than anytime in recent history and far more abused than they could ever be now. In fact, he likely spent those eight years calling anyone who did question those same things a traitor.

    I have more respect for actual KKK members, they at least have the balls to state their brand of evil crazy straight, proud, and honestly.

  7. @Rich

    Makes sense. The spring is prolly compressed enough resist the magnet oscillation but not enough to keep it from being pulled in case of a short circuit.

    Pretty damn ingenious I’d say. I’d love to see more photos of it.

  8. @David: Your statements makes little sense from a logistics, significance, or even common sense stand point. Sounds like you hate blacks, and laborer rights, and you’re trolling everywhere.

    Your troll really isn’t even frustrating or aggravating since it’s so obvious and dumb.

  9. @tjhooker – I think its too dumb for a troll. I really think he buys it. May be hard to believe anything that irrational exists, but its true. These people are scary.

    @David – Funny thing is I am a strongly pro-gun pro-military business-owning conservative who would vote Republican if they put an actual Republican up there to vote for. +1 point if you can realize that Neo-cons, Christian Nationalists, and the last Bush in no way represent any real Republican values by almost any metric you can define.

    The jingoistic nuts like you piss me off even more than if I actually was a liberal, as you give the rest of us a bad name and are pretty much directly the REASON we have a Democrat in office now.

  10. I had the chance to catch this episode when it aired. It’s great to see that he’s getting so much exposure for this, a little late, but well deserved. It sounded a little rehearsed though. Understandable seeing as he probably just learned English.

  11. This thread is full of fail. If this is what the HackADay community is really about, then I guess I’m not coming back here.

    When I saw the picture and read the explanation, I marveled at the simplicity of it. If we can’t give this kid credit for making the best out of what he had… then what the fuck are we all doing here? The epitome of hacking is to make do with what you have or to do it better yourself.

    I’m fucking disgusted with this place.

  12. What a great guy he is. Just goes to show that a real hacker can make something clever out of anything he finds lying around. I hope he gets into college in the US, then goes back to help his country. I think we’ll be hearing the name Kamkwamba again.

  13. I’m not going to even respond to those who commented above detracting from his intelligence, hard work, and perseverance. It would simply be a waste of my time and energy. I just wanted to say that I’ve had the internet, many libraries, parts, and equipment, and large labs that William Kamkwamba never had and yet to me his accomplishments far outstrip mine simply because he did it all without those resources. While I was mostly self educated in electronics and computers before attending Cornell, I cannot imagine starting from nearly “scratch”, with only scraps, a library, and my own logic and all at the age of 14. I feel thankful that I have all these resources at my disposal. Now I’m in the mood to hack and/or make something amazing.

  14. Bright, resourceful and inventive. Makes you wonder what he could have come up with by now without the challenges he faced with poverty and education. And what he will be capable of after he has received a decent education.
    We should all do so well with what we’re given.

  15. @ PocketBrain, sjm4306 and others like them:

    I couldn’t agree more. This kid, at age 14, took the equivalent of dirt, trash and a mantra, and made life better for those around him. I don’t think he was in it for recognition, or even a free hand-out. He wanted to improve the quality of life and he did. For him, that was the end of this story. Folks like us saw fit to reward not so much his stellar accomplishments, but more his desire and passion. Truly commendable, IMHO.

    @ the haters:

    What have you done with everything you have?

  16. I’ve just read William Kamkwamba’s amazing story “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”.
    What he achieved was nothing short of miraculous.
    I’m curious though, living in Africa where there are windmills everywhere, are there none at all anywhere in Malawi?
    I know William had never seen one which makes his invention all the more amazing, but are there windmills elsewhere in Malawi?

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