For many of us, our passion for electronics and science originated with curiosity about some device, a computer, radio, or even a car. The subject of this book has just such an origin. However, how many of us made this discovery and pursued this path during times of hunger or outright famine?
That’s the remarkable story of William Kamkwamba that’s told in the book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Remarkable because it culminates with his building a windmill (more correctly called a wind turbine) that powered lights in his family’s house all by the young age of fifteen. As you’ll see, it’s also the story of an unyielding thirst for knowledge in the face of famine and doubt by others.
Learning By Taking Apart Radios
Many things make this hack impressive. One is the hack itself but we’ll get to that later. The other is that it was made by a boy who was self-taught and only fifteen at the time. Another was his circumstances.
William Kamkwambe was born in Malawi, in southeast Africa on August 5th, 1987 in what most would call poverty. His family grew tobacco as a cash crop and maize, which many would know as corn, for food and for sale. They made just enough cash and maize to live off of, some years being bountiful and some years harvesting barely enough.
His thirst for knowledge and interest in science and electronics started in a way many readers will find very familiar. The first time he heard a radio he immediately wanted to know how it worked. This type of curiosity is the mark of an engineer and a scientist and from there his heart was set on getting an education to become a scientist, breaking out of the pattern of growing up to be a subsistence farmer.
And so at the age of thirteen, William and his friend Geoffrey began taking apart radios. They used trial and error to learn how they worked. For example, by disconnecting a transistor they learned where the amplification happens. To make repairs, in lieu of a soldering iron, they’d heat up a thick wire over the kitchen fire. For a while, they even repaired radios for others.
Bad Weather And a Dynamo
December 2000 brought heavy flooding followed by drought but a bit of rain in March saved their crop from total disaster. The events meant the family had less food than normal but just enough.
William was just 13 and during this time he discovered another electrical device, one that would eventually have an even bigger impact on his life than the radio. That was a bicycle dynamo, a small generator whose shaft was turned by contact with one of the bicycle’s wheels. The bicycle powered a light but he wanted to know if it could power a radio. He and Geoffrey connected the dynamo’s wires to where the radio’s battery went but that didn’t work. Pushing the wires into the radio’s AC input socket, however, did work. They took turns spinning the wheel by hand while the other danced to the music.
This started him wondering if there was some way to spin the dynamo automatically to power lights in his family’s home. The answer would come, but only near the end of a famine.
Famine And Discovering Windmills
If the previous season’s crop was bad, by September of 2001 it was clear the next would be worse. This time the drought stuck and plunged Malawi into a famine lasting around seven months and killing many through starvation and cholera. William’s family was among those affected. By early December they were down to one meal a day consisting of around seven mouthfuls. That was reduced to only one mouthful in the lead up to the time their crop of maize ripened, breaking the famine in March 2002.
William began secondary school a few months before harvest, during Christmas of 2001. But he soon had to drop out as all of the family’s money had to go toward paying for what little food they could afford. That didn’t stop his yearning to learn, though. In February, still in the middle of the famine, he made up for his lack of schooling by spend time in, and borrow books from a small library in Wimbe Primary School stocked with books donated by the American government.
He read books titled Explaining Physics and Integrated Science, using an English-Malawi dictionary to look up words. But it was from a textbook called Using Energy that he first discovered windmills. Finally, he’d found a way to keep the bicycle wheel turning to run the dynamo. He decided to build one.
Windmill From Scraps Lighting His House
As any engineer knows, it’s best to start with a prototype. His first turbine used blades carved from a bottle but it was too small.
To get longer blades for his second one, he came up with an ingenious solution which he’d continue to use for later versions. He and his friend Geoffery dug up a PVC pipe from an aunt’s collapsed house and cut it in half lengthwise. Then to flatten it, he heated it over his mother’s kitchen fire. He cut 20cm long blades from that. To make holes in the PVC he came up with another clever and simple technique. He took a nail and stuck half a maize cob onto one end to act as a handle. He then heated the nail red hot and poked it into the PVC blades to make holes. For the generator, he took a motor from a junk cassette player. Skipping the details of how he coupled the generator shaft to the wind turbine (tease: this included carving rubber from shoes for a high friction contact) they managed to power a small Panasonic radio.
The famine ended and with his windmill successes so far, he started gathering parts for his third windmill, the one that’d power lights in his home. From a scrapyard, he found a tractor fan on which to attach long PVC blades. To make the corresponding holes in the metal tractor fan blades he got a quick job loading wood, earning enough money to pay a local welder to drill the holes in the fan metal.
At the same time, he had a shock absorber, also from the scrapyard, welded to the pedal shaft of a broken bicycle that his father let him have. Using nuts and bolts purchased by his friend Gilbert, he bolted the PVC blades to the fan blades. He then attached this to the other end of the shock absorber. Thus, turning the blades turned the central sprocket of the bicycle as pedals would. The dynamo (also purchased by Gilbert) was the last piece of the puzzle and turned via the rear wheel of the bike being chain driven as normal by the pedal shaft.
William mounted it to the top of a six-inch diameter bamboo pole. The blades turned in the wind. In the first test powering his father’s radio, two things happened: there was a brief sound from the radio and black smoke began to pour out of the speakers. The problem was that the dynamo put out 12 volts AC while the radio was rated for half that. Referring back to a library book, Explaining Physics, he took wire from an old motor he’d had in his junk pile and wrapped it around a stick, forming a choke. With that in the circuit, the radio played without emitting smoke.
William, Geoffery, and Gilbert then cut three trees and dug holes to make a sixteen-foot tall tower behind his house. In the presence of a skeptical crowd, William removed a spoke that had been keeping it from rotating and with a gust of wind, the blades rotated and a light came to life.
In the coming months, William put lights in his home, eliminating the need to burn kerosene, and even created a homemade circuit breaker which we’d previously covered.
Rewarded With More Than Just Light
The towering windmill naturally attracted attention and the word got passed on from there. The final chapters in the book talk about how by November 2006 word reached outside his village resulting in visits from school officials, then reporters and eventually to William being given an all-expenses-paid trip to give a TED talk at TEDGlobal 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania.
This led to funding from wealthy venture capitalists and other individuals for his projects and education, partly to stimulate homegrown leaders who could go on to make positive contributions to Malawi and the rest of Africa. Funding through a non-profit group called the Moving Windmills Project went to improvements for his village and education. And together with buildOn.org, they rebuilt the Wimbe Primary school.
In December 2007 he got to visit Southern California to see the wind farm that he’d seen in the book, Using Energy. In June 2008 he participated in the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. He also received a scholarship to attend the African Leadership Academy, a high school in Johannesburg where he met other young people also destined to make a difference in Africa.
In the book’s postscript, we learn how a TV interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart led to invitations to visit colleges in the US and he eventually settled on Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, from which he graduated in 2014.
It’s difficult in an article to give every impression and interesting event that’s encountered in reading this book. One thing that surprised me time and again while reading is that William had next to nothing, suffered hunger, had some idea through radio and other means of the abundance and relative ease of parts of the world elsewhere, and yet showed not one inkling of frustration at his life. He shows just the opposite. You may say it was because of his young age but he exhibits wisdom beyond his years. Throughout the book, his enthusiasm, determination, and his hunger for knowledge never falter.
The other pleasure in reading this book was made possible by those same circumstances, his need to make do with what he had. Missing from this article are details of his homemade knives, a simple hack for trapping birds, and many other simple but brilliant and effective techniques for making things, causing this already inspiring tale to be all the more enjoyable a read.