I love the story of Srinivasa Iyengar Ramanujan, the Indian genius who taught himself mathematics and went on to create sublime proofs, capturing the attention of the world’s greatest mathematical thinkers. One-in-a-million prodigies like this seem to be sprinkled throughout time and geography, their distribution as random as it is sure. Just as a few people are born that grow over seven feet tall, the far reaches of the bell curve flashes with the odd Newton, Mozart, or William Kamkwamba.
Never heard of the last? Born in Malawi, and unable to afford formal schooling, young William took to breaking INTO class while so many of his worldwide contemporaries are struggling to break OUT. He was barred from school, so he turned to the local library, and their wealth of free information.
One day, he came across a book of windmills, and started dreaming about having electricity in his home. Power remains a rare commodity in William’s country; a mere 2% have it, and it’s unreliable, at best.
Using junk rounded up from around his village, William created his first windmill, pushing electrons into his house where it was regulated by a car battery. The constant flow of juice kept lights powered up at night, and ran the pump to irrigate new crops during the day.
In the great tradition of natural-born tinkerers, more revisions followed. And the people who thought the kid had lost his mind, soon wanted to know more about what he was doing. His story is featured in a new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, but first — you need to watch the video below.
What delights me most about this story is knowing that a few energetic, bright people could rebuild civilization from scraps, if they had to. One of the hardest steps is knowing what’s possible. As long as that survives, whether by book, or memory, or physical example, the fear that our progress could be stopped by a single cataclysm seems far-fetched. We went from hunter-gatherers to landing on the moon in just tens of thousands of years. An eye-blink to geologists, biologists, astronomers… hell to all but amateur climatologists and expert politicians. Just imagine how quickly that would go with scraps of useful metal lying about — and a few people like William.