When services function as expected and you are fully stocked with parts, no electronic project is impossible. As soon as the power goes out, however, then suddenly modern life collapses in seconds.
A common thought process during a power might be: “Oh, the power's out. Guess I can just use the tab to go online. Oh wait, the router's off!” followed by “I guess I'll just watch some TV….oh”.
Many of us forget that there are places in the world where having electrical power for 50% of the time is a real luxury. It is often said that engineers excel when placed in a difficult situation with limited resources which is why some of the most ingenious and creative engineering feats come from places that have limited access to modern technology. In fact, there exists a word in India called “Jugaad” which translates to “machinery” but typically implies innovation or desperate engineering to its finest (similar to the engineers who had to help with the Apollo 13 mission).
An example of jugaad, an engine powered water pump converted to a vehicle engine. Image courtesy of Vinayak Razdan [CC BY 3.0]
Some fantastic examples of Jugaad include cars made from water pumps, motorized bicycles from spare parts, and even a hot water supply made from an induction coil connected to a gas cooker. For something to be Jugaad (and this definition this depends on who you ask) it has to be made from scraps using only things that are readily available. One other way to think about it is building a device instead of buying one (i.e., building a computer cooler instead of buying one).
So while many first-world people alike feel that the world is going to end when their laptop starts to overheat, there are people who literally build all their appliances and solve problems to suit their needs. From a western point of view, there really is a sense of accomplishment if you design your own tools and machinery (such as designing your own PCB tanks or CNC machine albeit not as extreme as some “real” jugaad). For some, however, these accomplishments come from a place of true necessity.
Lighting A Village
One engineer who has drawn attention recently is Brackley Cassinga from Bukavu, Republic Of Congo. From the age of 11, Brackley has had a fascination for tinkering and repairing appliances around the house when his father was at work. However, Brackley had no one to teach him about electronics or how devices worked and therefore relied on his ability to tinker to understand how to fix appliances when they broke.
Despite being at an educational disadvantage, Brackley would gather scraps wherever he could find them, including rubbish dumps, so he could build his own circuits. Eventually, Brackley found himself building battery-powered lamps which he used to provide lighting to people's houses in his village. This simple device was a massive achievement for himself and others as lighting at night allows for post-sunset reading which in turn helps with education. For those reading who may be unimpressed, Brackley was only aged 13 by this point.
This scene is common in places which rely on locals to fill technological needs. Image courtesy of Prabuddha Jain [CC BY 2.0]
By age 14, Brackley had made a trip to Goma (a city in the Republic Of Congo), but this trip would get Brackley something more valuable than all the spare parts he had ever come across: a book on electronics.
This book provided Brackley both the inspiration and knowledge needed to start constructing more complex devices including an FM transmitter. At first, his FM transmitter had a range of 50M (better than the FM transmitter I personally constructed) but, with adjustments and improvements, he was able to get distances of 1km.
His projects were not limited to transmitters, soon Brackley moved to audio amplifiers, power boosters, inverters for solar anneals, and chargers.
Brackley Cassinga sharing his hard-fought knowledge. Image courtesy of MediaCongo.net.
When Brackley finished high school at age 18, he created a collective organization with other like-minded individuals including IT and electronic engineers in Bukavu. The collective, called Kwanza Technologies, create much-needed appliances in villages for free, as well as providing website design for local business. Currently, they are designing and building a crowdfunding application so that other people in areas like Bukava can get funding for projects.
Brackley, now 21, teaches children electronics and coding for free, helping others find their passion and drive to help others. A local university even approached Brackley to teach but, as he does not hold a degree, he is unqualified to do so. Despite that, I personally would prefer a lesson from Brackley on invention and ingenuity over any university professor or lecturer.
Engineering at its finest is never found in situations where funding is large and availability of parts is in an abundance. Real engineering is found in situations where there is next to no funding, knowledge is restricted, and parts are almost impossible to get. It is individuals like Brackley who define what it is to be an engineer: someone who can create almost anything from nothing.