The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

William_Kamkwambas_old_windmill.jpg

Photo of William Kamkwamba's wind turbine by Tom Reilly. licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

William Kamkwamba grew up in a village in Malawi, in southeast Africa. He could not attend school because his parents couldn't afford the tuition of $80 per year. From time to time, he sneaked into classes to learn math and English, but it wasn't long until the teachers discovered his presence and kicked him out.

Undaunted by poverty or the famines that affected his country, William taught himself by studying the books in the library of an elementary school in his village. In 2002, when he was 14 years old, he went to the library to find out what the English word "grapes" meant and he stumbled across a science book for elementary school students called Using Energy. William says that finding this book was the trigger that changed the course of his life.

He had a difficult time reading the book, but he pored over its diagrams for motors and generators, and eventually came up with the idea of building an electricity-generating wind turbine. His village did not have electricity (in fact, only 2% of Malawi receives electricity service, and that service is very spotty), and he dreamed of being able to read at night in his house.

William went about collecting the parts for a wind turbine from trash heaps and junkyards. He used old plastic pipes, a broken bicycle, a tractor fan, sticks, and bits of wire. He soldered the electrical components together using a piece of wire heated in a fire, and used a bent bicycle spoke as a wrench adapter.

William lashed his generator to a 16-foot tower made from tree branches. His fellow villagers thought his efforts were foolish, and they teased him. But when the blades of the turbine began to spin, and the small light bulb that he had connected to the output wires began to glow brightly, they stopped scoffing. William soon installed four light bulbs and two radios in his house, and built a circuit breaker to keep his house's thatch roof from catching fire.

As William continued to refine his home power system, he was discovered by journalists visiting the village. The news whipped around Africa and through the rest of the world, and he became known as "the boy who you harnessed the wind." He went on an international speaking tour, and at the age of 19 enrolled in a university in South Africa.

Today, the lasting impact of Williams work can already be felt. He is committed to improving the lives of his fellow Africans through the innovative use of sustainable technology, and is leading a project to rebuild his primary school in Malawi. You can read about it here.

Watch a short documentary about William Kamkwamba.

Buy The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer on Amazon


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  1. I’ve met William when he was doing a book tour in the US. We have some distant connection like my sister’s best friend’s mom’s sister’s husband is the guy in charge of his book and everything, so William actually went to my sister’s friend’s house for a party over the books success and whatnot.

    He is a very nice guy who didn’t speak much english at the time, but was very interested in what people had to say. At the time, he was still applying to schools. I gave him a tour of MIT when he came to visit, but it looks like he ended up at dartmouth according to h0n0rb.

  2. This absolutely qualifies as a Wonderful Thing. I wish we still had that kind of community spirit in the US.

    1. The kind of community spirit that laughs at a poor kid who tries something new despite his lack of resources? Oh yeah, we’ve got those kinds of communities in SPADES buddy!

  3. Oof… This guy makes me feel like such a loser. I just have to remind myself, he can’t reference a Jerry Seinfeld episode in response to just about every occurrence in a day! I gotcha there William, you and your smartness!

    1. “he can’t reference a Jerry Seinfeld episode in response to just about every occurrence in a day!”

      You don’t know that.

  4. And if that book had had to be filtered through DRM strictures before Williams could access it . . .
    Humanity needs all the Williams in Africa, the Americas, Asia . . .and not to squander their potential through restrictive DRM policies and internet provider greed.

  5. Ever since I first heard of him, I’ve really been inspired by his approach to engineering. See a problem, find a science/application of science, and then build the shit out of it with whatever you have available.

  6. I wonder if he cracked the long term energy storage (to even out the supply and demand issues of wind power) without using some lead acid car batteries or similar.

    I i tried something similar tho, i would have been shut down because of building codes or similar…

  7. He might may or may not know Seinfeld references, but there clearly is an available Simpsons reference to his story about being kicked out of a school for which he did not pay tuition.

    ———–

    Just outside Fort Springfield
    [Children peering over fence trying to see the action inside the fort.]

    Bart: It’s hard to see what’s going on; I can only make out the fat soldiers.

    [One of the soldier/actors spots the freeloaders]

    Solider 1 : Hey, they’re trying to learn for free!

    Guide : [sees them] Get ’em!

    Soldier 2 : Use your phony guns as clubs!

    (from The PTA Disbands)

  8. “From time to time, he sneaked into classes to learn math and English, but it wasn’t long until the teachers discovered his presence and kicked him out.”

    Then

    “…is leading a project to rebuild his primary school in Malawi.”

    That is forgiveness.

  9. Someone did say that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. William’s story can be no better proof.

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