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.
Buy The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer on Amazon
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.