Harnessed the Wind
and Bryan Mealer
William Morrow: 348 pp., $25.99
William Kamkwamba grew up in Malawi, the son of a maize and tobacco farmer. Their house had no electricity or plumbing. In William's village, high costs and frequent power outages made electricity hardly worth the effort. In 2002, flooding, famine and the high costs of fertilizer forced William's family to take him out of school -- they could no longer afford the annual tuition of $80.
William discovered the local library. Fascinated by how things worked (he and his friend fixed radios for villagers), he checked out "Explaining Physics," "Using Energy" and other science textbooks. Using scrap metal, a tractor fan, ball bearings from a discarded groundnut grinder and poles from blue gum trees, William made a windmill in the family's frontyard that powered four light bulbs and two radios. Using bicycle spokes and toggle switches made from discarded flipflops he made wall switches. William built a windmill for the schoolyard that powered a radio station and allowed students to recharge their parents' cellphones.
In November 2006, local officials heard of his efforts and sent him to a local boarding school. His story filtered through the blogosphere, and William was invited to a conference in Tunisia held by TED, a nonprofit group encouraging interaction between the worlds of technology, education and design. Members of the TED community helped William raise money for various projects -- installing electricity in William's village, digging wells, installing solar panels to supplement power input and providing batteries to store power.
"Now look at you," William told his father after installing the wall switches in the family home, "enjoying electricity like a city person!"
"Oh," his father said. "Enjoying it more than a city person."
"You mean because there's no blackouts and you owe [the power company] nothing?"
"Well, yes," his father said, "but also, because my own son made it."
The Beautiful Soul
of John Woolman,
Apostle of Abolition
Thomas P. Slaughter
Hill & Wang: 450 pp., $22 paper
John Woolman should be more familiar to us, this remarkable mystical activist, child of Quaker farmers in New Jersey. Woolman was born in 1720. His writings and efforts to abolish slavery, his frugal, modest lifestyle, his rejection of greed and consumption and his willingness to live by his principles -- refusing to travel on the backs of animals or wear clothing dyed by slaves or use any products that involved slavery or cruelty -- earned him the respect of poets and thinkers through the centuries. William James, in "The Varieties of Religious Experience," called him a saint. John Greenleaf Whittier called him a founding father of the abolitionist movement. Woolman's "Journal" was published in 1774 and has been reissued many times since, giving it the longest publishing life (except for the Bible) in American history.
There are a few previously published biographies, but Slaughter's is by far the most comprehensive, including many fascinating passages about Woolman's dreams. Slaughter is clearly interested in Woolman's brand of mysticism; the author walks the line between "hagiography and psychological reductionism," and there is much to learn here about the spiritual culture of the still-New World as well as the spiritual growth of this remarkable man.