Winter reading: windmills and prostheses
Brad Thompson, Contributing Technical Editor- December 1, 2009
Winter has arrived here in the northern hemisphere, and with it the indoor entertainment season. Serendipitous connections to the world of electronic test and measurement are welcome but optional, and you need no excuse to kick back and read a book.
One young African man did just that. Faced with a life that promised no further schooling, repeated bouts of near starvation, brushes with cholera, and a “career” as a subsistence farmer, William Kamkwamba visited his local library, a branch sponsored by the Malawi Teacher Training Activity and stocked with books donated by USAID (US Agency for International Development).
Intrigued by a textbook illustration of a windmill, Kamkwamba envisioned what electricity could mean for his family—nighttime illumination, power for a sewing machine, and a well pump that could free his mother and sisters from walking miles to fetch water for the family.
If you read Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, as his autobiography, you’ll meet an extraordinary human being (see "Ingenuity: humanity's greatest resource"). Read the book as a technical account, and you’ll appreciate the importance of having a junkyard and a library nearby. As for his test equipment, can you do your job equipped only with sparks and salvaged incandescent lamps? To quote Anne Herbert, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries” (Ref. 1).
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At the other extreme, a small fraction of the US Department of Defense budget (approximately 0.4%) funds DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency). Presumably, DARPA’s scientists and engineers enjoy access to proportionately large junkyards and libraries. Funding for research, development, test, and evaluation activities alone exceeds $200 million. DARPA also tackles projects far beyond the scope of any individual’s efforts.
In his book The Department of Mad Scientists, author Michael Belfiore explores DARPA-sponsored development of prosthetic limbs for wounded military personnel, the Internet, robotic surgical suites, autonomous motor vehicles, and jet-engine grade fuels derived from soybeans. All of these activities have obvious military uses, but odds are excellent that, like the Internet, they’ll eventually serve the civilian world.