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
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