Portable and off the grid
December 3, 2003 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention. (NY Times, reg. req.) Amy Smith teaches MIT students about the politics of delivering technology to poor nations and the nitty-gritty of mechanical engineering and helped start the IDEAS competition; she herself designed (among other things) a screenless hammer mill suited to third-world conditions and using "materials available to a blacksmith in Senegal."
Smith's entire life is like one of her inventions, portable and off the grid. At 41, she has no kids, no car, no retirement plan and no desire for a Ph.D. Her official title: instructor. ''I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. Why would I spend six years to get a Ph.D. to be in the position I'm in now, but with a title after my name? M.I.T. loves that I'm doing this work. The support is there. So I don't worry.''...
Likewise, the inventors who most inspire her will never strike it rich. ''There are geniuses in Africa, but they're not getting the press,'' she says. She gushes about Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher who came up with the pot-within-a-pot system. With nothing more than a big terra-cotta bowl, a little pot, some sand and water, Abba created a refrigerator -- the rig uses evaporation rather than electricity to keep vegetables cool. Innovations that target the poorest of the poor don't have to be complicated to make a big difference. The best solution is sometimes the most obvious.
A rare optimistic story for these downbeat times.
posted by languagehat (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
no interest in being a Ph.D., but she's an MIT grad student.

that sounds weird to me.
posted by taumeson at 1:35 PM on December 3, 2003

[this is good]
posted by plep at 1:40 PM on December 3, 2003

excellent! THANK YOU! This fits perfectly with personal life ambitions of mine, and has reassured me that I am not wacko in my professional activities either.

The inordinate love of high-tech is a strange thing. I am an engineer, and my general preference is to come up with the lowest-tech solution to a problem. It's a damned hard sell to convince someone that a simple mechanical device costing $20 can perform a sorting operation that another engineer wants to "fix" with a $20,000 computer-aided vision system. Love of gadgetry makes for some fiscally irresponsible decisions.
posted by yesster at 1:49 PM on December 3, 2003 [1 favorite]

Planning on blogging, yesster? I love engineering and design anecdotes.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:04 PM on December 3, 2003

I've toyed with the idea, but really just haven't got around to doing it. If I did, though, I probably wouldn't include much about my job, which is mostly boring and really doesn't include enough design work.
posted by yesster at 2:14 PM on December 3, 2003

I would love to see one of these types on survivor.
posted by srboisvert at 3:12 PM on December 3, 2003

taumeson, I guess I'm weird then, too. I'm entering into getting my Master's in Math so that I can teach at the community college level. I won't be dealing with anything so esoteric or cool as the FPP article (regular ol' math teaching), but it's rather rewarding. A PhD would likely get me a higher salary, but I really don't want to go through all that suffering.
posted by notsnot at 4:09 PM on December 3, 2003

A rare optimistic story for these downbeat times


Everyone I know is happy and optimistic. Its Christmas time, and the economy is cooking along at historically unprecedented pace.

I think some of the posters here need to take a deep breath, step back, and get a little perspective. All of the constant talk about Patriot Acts, cronyism, navel-gasing and anti-Bushism is eating at people way too much if it causes them to be downbeat.

In day-to-day life, no one I know is living in fear. No one I know has changed their lives because of the Patriot Act. No one really fears getting arrested by secret police or being spied on. Though the economy had a slump because of the dot.com bubble bursting and of 9/11, everyone I know is optimisitc about the economy.

I don't mean to rant. But I just worry sometimes about some of you guys because some posters have a "sky-is-falling" view of the world.

There is a lot to be optimistic about. Sorry about ranting, but I was just struck by that phrase. I just wanted to add some perspective.
posted by Seth at 6:04 PM on December 3, 2003

Great FPP! Thanks.
posted by dejah420 at 8:16 PM on December 3, 2003

I remember back when two "sliced-bread" ideas came to underdeveloped areas.

The first was brilliant in that it was a simple, logical next small step to a better technology for the locals, that they both understood and were thrilled with.

The town made pottery by hand-spinning a wheel, then working the clay. The brilliant idea was to use a foot-powered counter wheel so that you could spin the wheel and work the clay at the same time!

Overnight, their production tripled. They were as happy as could be.

The other invention capitalized on more advanced technology that was widespread, if not well understood: the diesel truck (and its air brakes.) These trucks are a common vehicle in the region, and most had a standard air brake bleed valve, to purge the considerable excess air pressure.

The invention was a mud brick press. Just shovel mud and straw (and maybe a spoonful of very cheap powdered sealant, optional) into the device, then power the compression with the air purged from the brake system. No other energy supply required.

The relatively tremendous pressure created an adobe brick that was almost waterproof (quite waterproof with the sealant added), and would dry enough for use in a day, unlike traditional adobe, that takes the better part of a week to dry. Plus, one person could crank out a 20-40 bricks an hour.

With a team effort, a good quality house could be built in days, rather than months.

Technologists who create ideas like this can make the lives of millions of people better.
posted by kablam at 8:37 PM on December 3, 2003

I remember reading years back about an engineer/inventor who had a similar humanitarian approach. He produced among other things a hand-cranked rice huller that was low-cost, allowing poorer farmers to cheaply hull rice their own rice. The amazing thing was that he made it public domain, along with several other inventions.
posted by O9scar at 10:58 PM on December 3, 2003

A piece about spectacles which the wearer can adjust.

Especially useful for people in developing countries, where there may be relatively few opticians.
posted by plep at 12:47 AM on December 4, 2003

there was a nice writeup on ingenieurs san frontieres/engineers without borders at worldchanging recently :D they can make a big difference !
posted by kliuless at 5:10 AM on December 4, 2003

she has no kids, no car, no retirement plan and no desire for a Ph.D.

She's a PhD student then?
posted by biffa at 9:42 AM on December 4, 2003

As an old student of Amy's at MIT, I can honestly say she deserves this kind of attention. She was my 2.01 TA (Intro to Mechanics) as a freshman, and she hooked me on mechanical engineering and design. Alongside her incredibly giving nature, she's a great teacher - one of the few TAs that truly had "been there, done that." Go Amy!
posted by rshah21 at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2003

This is a good story, but what is so innovative about it? It looks like a variant on the traditional evaporative cooler.
posted by raygirvan at 2:36 PM on December 4, 2003

Excellent article. Thx!
posted by widdershins at 8:52 AM on December 5, 2003

"Technologists who create ideas like this can make the lives of millions of people better."

Yes, but it never happens.

What shit.
posted by johnnydark at 4:55 AM on January 3, 2004

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