Books You Should Read: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

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

Bicycle bottle dynamo on wheel.
Bicycle bottle dynamo on wheel.

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.

William Kamkwambas' first big windmill behind his house.
The big windmill. Source Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando CC BY 2.0

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

William Kamkwambas at TEDGlobal in 2007.
William at TEDGlobal 2007. Source Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando CC BY 2.0

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, 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.

30 thoughts on “Books You Should Read: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

    1. Going somewhere is why god gave us legs. Or maybe the universe doesn’t give a crap and trying to interpret its intentions is a fool’s errant. Trust in your own judgement or work to make it trustworthy.

  1. This sounds very apocryphal to me. I would guess to anybody who ever tried it. Starting with even powering a radio from a small DC motor by spinning it. This is not at all clean DC like you get from a battery and without a good amount of filtering you may be able to hear a bit of audio over the chopping power, but I doubt it. It might have worked with the battery still connected but without a diode, if the winds stopped the mill would become a fan until the battery died. The motor that put out AC, I would be interested to see what that came out of. Also I would be dubious about it being able to produce enough power to be able to make anything smoke. Also severely reverse biasing semiconductors usually cooks them, yet the radio lived through smoking speakers. And last the lights. You need a lot more power for any type of lighting, and inexpensive lighting is (was) expensive (LED’s vs incandescent). I am very dubious about such a setup running much more than a flashlight lamp. I am hoping my savonius wind turbine driving a treadmill motor will be able to keep a lawn tractor battery topped off enough to run a couple 3W LED spotlights over night.

    1. I have the book, great haven’t read it. I found it at a used book sale. I assumed a much bigger project.

      Remember, what’s here is a condensation of a book aimed at a general population. There is certainly simplification in the book due to its intended readers, and maybe garbling based on the author (I assume a third party) bag ng little technical knowledge.

      Or maybe it’s all over hype based on a bit of exploring by a kid. He did fiddle around and get some result and it showed potential (which has been rewarded by an education) but those without technical knowledge can often be in awe of something they can’t do, so maybe the project is simpler than the hype suggests. Maybe amplified by it coming from a poor African (as if the story is unique).

      The idea of cheap energy for developing countries is ongoing. 40-50 years ago it came under “appropriate technology”, and either the Savonius rotor came at that time or was promoted at that time, saw an oil drum in half and offset it. More recently Lee Felsenstein himself was involved in some program to provide self powered computers to Africa. And a teenager a few years ago had a science project for lighting for her cousins (I think in tye Philippines).

    2. Yeah, I’m willing to buy the generic premise, but the details themselves are… probably, um, “dramatized” with copious amounts of freedom taken. And while I have nothing but deep respect for the spirit of a person overcoming adversity on that scale and building things against them, the idea itself of powering something with a dynamo that is a device purposefully built to power things sounds… a great deal less than revolutionary (also a pet peeve of mine with a certain, IMHO insanely overrated ex-British innovator). Incidentally though, not sure how bicycle dynamos tend work in other parts of the world, but the one I had as a kid sure did output AC – it was a simple magnet spinning between alternating armatures going through a coil. It was magnetically “sticking” to the armatures like crazy, even powering it back with low-voltage AC you had to give it a really hard twirl to get it started, but it worked like a synchronous motor after that – fixed RPM regardless of load up until loaded enough to break sync. And of course there was no such thing as an “output voltage” for it – it output whatever speed you were cranking it at – but yeah, typically that was around 6V or so tops, enough to drive a typical small torch light bulb (or promptly burn it out, if you felt like speeding excessively).

  2. I believe this was meant as a positive story about curiosity and hacking hardware – and escaping poverty and famine.
    If some do-good’er hyped the story to pick up a few cheap karma-point along the way, that’s on her/him – not the protagonist.

      1. Yeah, not buying it.

        “Pushing the wires into the radio’s AC input socket, however, did work.” How many volts AC did that bicycle generator put out??

        We have our answer: “The problem was that the dynamo put out 12 volts AC while the radio was rated for half that.”

        I’d like to see a HaD article about this radio that’s built to run on 6 volts AC. And another one on using a choke with a non-ferrous stick for a core (so really just a coil) to halve AC voltage.

        1. My guess is, if it was a typical “either mains AC or batteries” (“solid state”, haha…) radio, it had a transformer in it – if they were clever enough at the time to bypass it and apply the dynamo _instead_ of the transformer, there’s no reason it wouldn’t have worked. I have also seen small radios (like the SOKOL-403) with a weird “wall wart” style external AC adapter, that connected to the radio with a “figure-8” connector – a monumentally stupid choice IMHO, as it allowed one (if appropriately elderly and forgetful) to shove a straight-mains “figure-8” power cord into the radio instead of the 9V-wart. Ask me how I know (only the audio final MP40 pair had to be replaced, and the radio marched right on)… But, anyway, a similarly constructed radio _may_ have actually worked ok with the dynamo plugged in directly instead of the wall wart – assuming the rectification was done inside the radio…

    1. Right. It seems to be completely true, if the photograph isn’t a clever fake, that he at least built a wind turbine and powered some lights off it. For a kid with perhaps a year or two primary-level education to do that, is still impressive. For a kid to teach themselves is impressive. It’s his intelligence, curiosity, and drive, that he deserves credit for, even if he wasn’t splitting any atoms.

      Yeah the details might be a mix of the journalist author not knowing what he was talking about, and perhaps William has a few odd ideas, since he’s not formally taught, or wasn’t at the time.

      The bit about learning anything from taking a radio apart is nonsense. A transistor won’t just amplify, you have to bias it and AC couple it, and do the equations necessary. Not rocket science but you’d never figure out the principles from looking at a case full of metal insects, with no measuring instruments.

      His windmill though doesn’t require electronics, again perhaps the journalist isn’t really au fait with that principle.

      Yeah dividing low-voltage low-frequency AC in half with a home-made choke sounds a bit dubious. Maybe it was a long and thin enough wire it worked as a resistor. And we all know what happens once the magic smoke escapes.

      But most of that I blame the journalist for. For the stuff William undoubtedly did, he’s still a smart and motivated lad.

      As far as lighting goes, btw, you don’t need much of it to light a little one-room shack. Torch / bicycle bulbs would have done. You can series / parallel them to get the appropriate voltage to match your generator. Presumably they came from the same place he got the dynamo from, the same bike, probably.

      Re Tr*vor B*yliss, whom a poster was careful not to invoke, the clever bit in his radios is the spring. It holds much more energy than a normal spring and the mechanism gives it back at a constant rate. There was some original development there. He didn’t invent the principle but he made the first practical clockwork radio, and it’s been invaluable in spreading useful information to the African public.

  3. Wow, pretty negative here. “Well he didn’t have a PhD in Engineering and didn’t use an arduino and an arc welder so it’s obviously bullshit!” Suppose it’s just to hard to believe that people can be intelligent and creative without access to 1st world technology. (“What, you invented fire without matches!? IMPOSSIBLE!!”)

  4. Hi folks,

    As always, the comments made me laugh more than the blog entry. Also, by reading this article, I realized more how much I learned from my youth about perseverance.
    Now, I’m sharing my perspective as someone who when through similar experiences albeit not with famine. I can totally relate to the hacks that are (partially) described in the article. Poverty has the knack of making you resourceful.

    Unless you’ve lived in a place where night means compete darkness (maybe except for the ones with full moon) you’d not appreciate the resolve that William had to “electrify” his parents house. The hack here is not how he figured a way to generate noise free electricity to power a radio without interference, but how he was able to think outside of his community box, where folks were managing with kerosene lamps.

    I spent countless summers at my grandma’s where the light in the cabin was either that of the kerosene lamp or a beaten up aluminum flashlight that was very finikey. My very first hack was to figure out how that flashlight worked so I could repair it, then to wire two lightbulbs to the same batteries in parallel so we could have light in the common room and the kitchen where my grandma spent most of her time. Light from a flashlight to lit a room? I hear you say! Well, all I had to do was to hang it under the roof and keep the bulb in the reflector box.
    I went down the rabbit hole after that. Many hacks later, I got my engineering degree. I still hack today, mostly for my employer though, and still enjoy it as much as when I was 12.

    Speaking of access to electricity, which is the reason William build his wind turbine, it is still a privilege in large swaths of the world.
    Until two summers ago, the house where I spend my summers in Africa was powered first by a small wind turbine I had put together from a permanent magnet motor, then by a cheap set of solar panels. Even though I managed to have the house connected to the grid, the “juice” is not always available. I still have my old setup in place and would use it whenever it’s needed.

    All to say, when you don’t have something you really need, you figure out how to make things work and Williams story is just that: a series of hacks from a very curious and resourceful boy.


      1. Hey Hirudinea,

        I never stopped hacking :) and have been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to get my kids interested.

        I grew up in and spent most of my summers with my grandma in the grassfields of west Cameroon. As I said above, I started hacking when I was 12 as a way to fix things that we really needed.

        One of my proudest hacks when I was fifteen was to make a TV antenna that captured analog signal from the gabonese state tv station about 600km away and the “antenna” was made of four 1.2m fluorescent tubes placed in front of a fan grill in a conical configuration. all of it hoisted about 15m above ground using a bamboo tower. Do not ask me how that thing worked, it was basically trial and errors and the idea came from seeing a picture of what I now know to be the Aricebo observatory in an old magazine. Just the fact that it kind of worked boosted my confidence and I kept at it.

        As a matter of fact, I first came across and read the hackaday blog in the fall of 2007 while looking for the why and how of that antenna I made at fifteen. I had recently moved to the US and was looking at ways to “make” things without breaking the bank. I had learned the hard way through one of my misfortunes that on this side of the ocean, it’s cheaper to buy a wire stripper than pay $700 at the dentist for a chipped tooth. You see, I went through engineering school and never owned as much as a wire stripper. Heck we would salvage everything. Scrap parts were gold. Wires would be extracted from all parallel cables and stripped with teeth’s. Parts would be scavenged from old TV’s and radios. Needless to say that after reading a few blog posts on HAD, I felt right at home and I have been reading since.

        Today, I can afford to buy all the tools that I need and I did acquire a few overtime. I usually get multiple tools just so that I can travel back to my alma mater in Cameroon and make them available to kids who need them, because I know how much they will value those.
        So, reading the story of William above made me appreciate how much I had learned from those experiences and reading the comments made me realize how much we can learn from each other.


    1. “Unless you’ve lived in a place where night means compete darkness”

      There a technical term for what you’re talking about : “Indoors”. Are you familiar with Venus?

  5. In the early 70’s I ran a transistor battery radio on a bottle generator and cruised around town on my bike listening to 50 mile distant FM radio. No alternator whine except some on AM. I don’t remember if I used a bridge or single diode or cap. Some portable radio’s power adapter jacks were AC not the normal DC but still low voltage. Today that same generator lights up a LED headlight. New whine in old bottle!

  6. Disconnecting a transistor doesn’t tell you where the amplification happens. By that logic cutting any random wire including one of the speaker leads tells you where the amplification happens. This is Noble Savage meets Dancing Bear but if it makes people feel good I guess I’m okay with it.

  7. The accounts I think are quiet plausible The AC input may very well have been a socket for a “wall wart” and that particular radio had a series diode or even a parrallel diode for reverse voltage protection which would have the effect of rectifying the AC from the dynamo.

    The black smoke from the speaker – how many people refer to their computer box as the “Hard Drive” .

    Illuminating a light in the house – totally reasonable illuminating lights is just what a bike dynamo is designed to do.

    As bad as anyone on this site may have it we are all infinitely better resourced than many other people – this young fellow had to earn money to pay someone to drill a couple of holes – how spoilt are we…

    1. A representative of a mission in Haiti, once told us; “Give a man a tool, and you’ve given him a job!”
      Meaning, many men are willing to work to feed their families, but those that have at least one tool,
      (e.g. hammer, shovel, wheelbarrow, saw) will be able to make an income.

      HaD readers,please consider donating a few hand tools (even from a dollar/pound store) to “the missions”, when the opportunity arises.

  8. This is a great book but it does kind of underscore everything that’s wrong with West’s perception of Africa.
    Stories like this perpetuate the idea that centuries of colonial oppression and economic isolation can be undone by a lone entrepreneurial spirit.
    Which is certainly the message everyone in the west wants to hear, but few are willing to delve deeper.

    1. Well yeah. But OTOH stories like these show that people like William are worth saving. That their poverty isn’t a result of them being lazy or stupid. That they can work hard, with almost nothing, use their brains, and achieve impressive things, proportional to the resources they have.

      Of course you and me knew that already but it’s amazing how horrendously ignorant and small-minded some people are.

      It also makes one think “If we gave them a bit more money, what else might they be able to achieve?”. The world will never be saved through saintly white men shipping high-tech solutions to places that still don’t have fridges or reliable electricity.

      Mostly, poor countries are poor because rich Western companies steal all their stuff. Through debt, and extracting resources without paying a fair fee back to the people the resources belong to. This isn’t a secret, but it’s not widely perceived either. Obviously the culprits, rich and powerful, use the methods they can to whitewash their crimes and exploitation. The media is very powerful in the West, and “journalistic integrity” has gone from being a joke to sounding like a foreign language. Journalists reprint press releases uncritically, in between telephoto shots of some celebrity on holiday in her bikini (and look how FAT the hideous cow is!!!!).

      Still I do agree with your point. The idea is that the rich earn their riches through hard work and intelligence, and thus deserve all they have, while the poor don’t. Ignoring the vast inequalities that mean that Amazon douche is possibly the richest person who ever lived, while William, possibly just as motivated and clever if a bit more empathetic, is lucky to be able to give his family electric light.

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