How an African Boy Built a Windmill From Scratch to Generate Electricity to Read, and Why a Return to Hands-On Product Innovation and Development Might Lead to Recovery in the US

The video above is the story of William Kamwamba, a young man born in Malawi, one of Africa's poorest nations, who pieced together a windmill from scrap parts at the age of 14 (from Wired Magazine's Teen's DIY Energy Hacking Gives African Village New Hope).  Despite being described as a local kid gone crazy, William used a picture of a windmill on a textbook cover, to successfully complete a windmill and power his house with electricity so he could read after dark.  This soon led to using the device to pump water for irrigation, and started William down a path that would not only change his life, but help lift those around him up to better living conditions.  

Stories like this are inspirational to say the least, but also allude to what we may find taking place in the United States right now.  Mr. Kamwamba's story is evidence of what can take place when resources which could be deemed extremely minimal, at best, are innovatively pieced together in ways previously unseen, to create products and technologies that solve the most basic of problems and usher in waves of new possibilities.  The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article "Tinkering Makes a Comeback Amid Crisis", which notes the recent surge in hands-on building, prototyping, crafting, and general making of things taking place in the United States over the last few years:

Engineering schools across the country report students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work that hasn't been seen in years. Workshops for people to share tools and ideas — called "hackerspaces" — are popping up all over the country; there are 124 hackerspaces in the U.S., according to a member-run group that keeps track, up from a handful at the start of last year. SparkFun Electronics Inc., which sells electronic parts to tinkerers, expects sales of about $10 million this year, up from $6 million in 2008. "Make" magazine, with articles on building items such as solar hot tubs and autopilots for robots, has grown from 22,000 subscribers in 2005 to more than 100,000 now. Its annual "Maker Faire" in San Mateo, Calif., attracted 75,000 people this year.

"We've had this merging of DIY [do it yourself] with technology," says Bre Pettis, co-founder of NYC Resistor, one of the first hackerspaces, in Brooklyn. "I'm calling it Industrial Revolution 2." 

The resources available for making things are becoming cheaper and increasingly more available to the common tinkerer (product developer?  Inventor?).  The WSJ article notes that university undergraduates are now gaining access to advanced machinery previously only available to senior researchers, and new businesses like Techshop:

TechShop in Menlo Park, Calif., for example, is a for-profit workshop and operates like a gym, except that the members who pay $100 a month are milling iron rather than pumping it.

Founder Jim Newton tallied a list of all the tools he could imagine needing. Now TechShop, opened in 2006, has $500,000 worth of lathes, laser cutters and other equipment.

There are 600 members at TechShop's original location, up from 300 a year ago, and it has opened workshops in Durham, N.C., and Beaverton, Ore. Projects under way include a liquid-cooling device for computer servers and an electric two-wheeled car.

Nobel Prize winning economists have demonstrated that approximately half of economic growth in the U.S. could be attributed to innovation–innovation born out of the kind of "tinkering" and product development that takes place at places like Techshop, or in the rural windmill fields of Malawi.  

 

The junk lying around you may actually be components for a future product or technology that will have a substantial impact.  All it takes is the imagination and drive of a guy like William.  I would wager that someone in the U.S. is tinkering right now with one of the next major innovations of the 21st century. That might be a dramatic, whimsical thought, but so is reading after dark because your hand-built windmill made of scrap is supplying you power.