Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 584:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 584.

Today, we learn a lesson by making a machine fit the people who use it. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The newspapers teem with horror stories about gifts of American high tech rotting in third-world fields. You don't help a medieval village much by giving it a Cray Computer.

That dilemma has given us a new phrase. It is Appropriate Technology. Many engineers are being caught up in the beautiful problem of designing machines that fit in poorer areas.

The problem is beautiful because it dramatizes every issue central to good design. We need machines that are affordable, easy to make, and easy to keep up. But we also need machines that are at home in local cultures. For example:

A student at Georgia Tech invented a solar cooker for hot countries with limited fuel. It was a reflecting lens you can make for only two dollars. He used cardboard and aluminum foil.

It worked fine in Haiti, but not in the Sudan. Cooking is a private matter in the Sudan. Polite Sudanese wouldn't be caught dead cooking outdoors. This elegant little cooker says volumes about what appropriate technology means. Good designs have to fit culturally as well as economically.

Another group took on a Tanzanian problem. Cooking oil is hard to come by in Tanzania. There's a rich source of oil in sunflower seeds. But you need a costly press to crush the seeds.

First the group made a serviceable motor-driven press for $1000. But $1000 is a small fortune in Tanzania. Besides, the motors had to be maintained.

So the engineers went back to the drawing board. They scaled down. They created a far simpler manual press. Once it went into use, Tanzanian craftsmen tinkered with the design. They moved handles. They created jigs to improve the press's precision. Now this was no longer alien technology. They'd made the design their own.

In late 1989, 60 of these presses put out 25,000 gallons of sunflower-seed oil. Now Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Zambia are all using the presses.

Many American engineers are relearning design with the help of third world needs. One group has created a cheap, efficient stove for Kenya. Others have designed a low-cost wheelchair for the Philippines -- a manual water pump for Latin America.

We learn a lesson about generosity from all this. It is that the giver of the gift often gains the most from it. Here's a gift that makes better engineers of the people who give it. And it makes them better human beings on the way.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Valenti, M., Appropriate Technology: Designing to Fit Local Culture. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 113, No. 6, June 1991, pp. 64-69.

Author Valenti lists three sources for more information about this work:

Appropriate Technology International
1331 H St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 879-2900
Georgia Tech GTRI
Economic Development Laboratory
O'Keefe Building
Atlanta, GA 30332
(404) 894-3950
Volunteers in Technical Assistance
1815 North Lynn St., Suite 200
Arlington, VA 22209
(703) 276-1800

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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