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Science Technology

Low-tech Inventions That Help Change Lives 174

Posted by Zonk
from the best-thing-since-the-shoelace dept.
angelaelle writes "The current issue of Popular Mechanics is featuring their Breakthrough Awards program for inventors. Some of the winning inventions help improve the living conditions for people in third world countries using low-tech materials and assembly methods. Technologies like this cookstove for people in Darfur, and in the case of this Windbelt developed by Shawn Frayne, could be used to provide cheap, clean energy alternatives. The website features fascinating, inspiring videos talking about the inventor's 'eureka moment', focusing on the inventor as well as the technology."
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Low-tech Inventions That Help Change Lives

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  • by phorm (591458) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:01PM (#20946597) Journal
    One of my favorites was the water-pump that was essentially a spiral "drill" type shape enclosed in a tube. As you rotate the drill, it water in the spirals would be moved upwards through the pipe and - eventually - out the spout at the top.

    My understanding was that it's a lot better than many of the bucket+rope configurations used with wells.
    • by urcreepyneighbor (1171755) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:08PM (#20946689)
      It sounds like you're talking about Archimedes' screw [wikipedia.org].
    • by Telvin_3d (855514) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:09PM (#20946701)
      I do believe that this invention is known as an Archimede's Screw.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes_screw [wikipedia.org]
      The fact that it is named after a dead Greek should tell you how well known the principles of it are.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tmasssey (546878)

      It's called an Archimedes' Screw [wikipedia.org]. It has advantages (especially in high-torque applications), but it is not very useful for moving water a long distance. Out of a ditch (a few meters), yes. Out of a *well* (tens of meters), no.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jfengel (409917)
      Is that different from the Archimedes Screw, which has been used for well over 2,000 years? It's pretty clever but it's not exactly new.
    • by maggard (5579) <michael@michaelmaggard.com> on Friday October 12, 2007 @01:37AM (#20949971) Homepage Journal

      Um, no.

      Archimede's Screw is not a replacement for a rope & bucket. Or at least, not for the sort of deep well seen in many parts of the world where surface water is unavailable or contaminated.

      Archimede's Screw requires substantially more run then rise; making it suitable for moving water up and over from a river to a settling pond or canal. Wikipedia has a good explanation of the mathematics; for the casual reader just figure about a 30 degree angle or less.

      On the other hand a rope & bucket is all rise and very little run; it just brings water up, on the very close order of 90 degrees.

      So they're substantially different sort of devices, and not interchangeable at all. Nor is either particularly new, Archimede's Screw dates back 2,500+ years, the rope and bucket considerably further.

      All of that said, I have to note that not knowing about Archimede's Screw is a pretty spectacular gap in a decent education.

      The six classes of simple machines - wedge, ramp, screw, lever, wheel & axle, and pulley, are fundamental to how the machanical world works. I'd have hoped this is covered early on in anyone's education, particularly anyone with any sort of interest in 'how the world works'.

      If your educational system neglected this material perhaps a note to them detailing this gap, and resulting gaffe, might inspire the current generation of educators to review the curricula and see if that can't fit it in somewhere.

      • by Calinous (985536)
        I've found about the Archimedes' screw reading some thing or another on the Internet, a couple of years ago. Had no idea of its existence before
      • The six classes of simple machines - wedge, ramp, screw, lever, wheel & axle, and pulley, are fundamental to how the machanical world works. I'd have hoped this is covered early on in anyone's education, particularly anyone with any sort of interest in 'how the world works'.

        If these classes are fundamental, what type of simple machine [mikids.com] is the cook-stove mentioned in the article? Also which of the 6 types matches a bow, or a sled, or a boat? In reality the six classes are not fundamental at all, but jus

        • by wed128 (722152)
          The cook stove isn't a mechanical device. A bow is a mechanical source (like a spring), but no advantage, unless it's something fancy such as a compound bow, which uses pulleys to manipulate the force from the bow. A sled or boat has no mechanical advantage either, they just reduce friction.

          These six simple machines can be broken down further, given that a screw is a special case of a ramp, and a wheel and axle is a special case of a lever.
      • No. We're talking about the one invented by Archimedes. I don't even know who this Archimede character that you're talking about is.
        • by maggard (5579)

          Thank you, you're right, I don't know what I was thinking: Archimedes.

          I can only claim lack of sleep (and hope readers also forgive the spelling errors.)

  • my favorite.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:08PM (#20946695)
    The Pot in pot refrigerator [wikipedia.org]
    • that sounds very much like a coolgardie safe

      (and I remember reading ina kids book when I was little about keeping things cool using a wet terracotta pot - is the pot in a pot really that big a leap?)
  • Hexayurts (Score:5, Informative)

    by StCredZero (169093) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:09PM (#20946707)
    A lot of these sorts of technologies were aggregated [archive.org] (PDF) by the Hexayurt folks. The hexayurt is itself one of these technologies. A roomy shelter costing just over $200, takes just a few hours to build, and has the R-value of a typical house.

    http://hexayurt.com/ [hexayurt.com]
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by noidentity (188756)
      "A roomy shelter costing just over $200, takes just a few hours to build, and has the R-value of a typical house."

      Apparently longer than they spent on their website. Seriously, why does it read as a random gob of sentences about the Hexayurt, yet not answer my basic questions?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by vkg (158234)
        Sorry you were having trouble with the web site. I'm Vinay, the guy who designed the hexayurt. What did you want to know that you couldn't find there?
        • Hi Vinay,

          You should take the summary information from this page - http://www.appropedia.org/Hexayurt_Project [appropedia.org] - and put it the front page of your site. I'd also like to see a summary of how your project borrows from Ghandi, Bucky Fuller and FOSS.

          FWIW, I think what you are doing is really interesting - and I disagree that you suck at video!

          --
          R108
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by replicant108 (690832)
      Fascinating videos. The last one especially is excellent.

      Ghandi+Bucky Fuller+FOSS = interesting stuff!

      This is a page with more info on the Hexayurt:

      http://www.appropedia.org/Hexayurt_Project [appropedia.org]
  • #1 invention (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    The condom should be at the top of that list...
    • by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:41PM (#20947007) Journal
      The problem is that invention can be countered by the Roman Catholic! :-P
  • Chimney starter (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Vrallis (33290)
    The "high efficiency stove" is just a chimney starter [wikipedia.org] using pots the right size to fully close the top. Yeah, I applaud them for trying to find ways to help, but these really aren't "inventions," just re-applications of existing items and concepts.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      these really aren't "inventions," just re-applications of existing items and concepts.
      Um, what? 99.99% of inventions are "just re-applications of existing items and concepts", including such boring and inconsequential devices as the car, the airplane, and the atomic bomb.
    • Re:Chimney starter (Score:5, Informative)

      by QuantumRiff (120817) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:00PM (#20947195)
      They went out, and studied the needs, and the current stuff they used, every thing from the size of pots, to the long stick they use to stir it, and that women would leave villages for hours looking for wood, and get their arms chopped off by bad people. So, they tailor made and engineered something stable, cost effective, designed for the size/style of equipment they already use, and it uses 1/4 the fuel, meaning less trips out into the dangerous woods.. they are not just a store bought BBQ starter..
      • In keeping with the Slashdot culture of pointing out when things have been done before I'll note that there are scads of similar stoves all over Africa, and scads of relief organizations who have done what you describe. Why Pop Sci picked out these particular ones I have no idea.

        I've seen a lot of Hedon stoves. Someone developed something they call the Ugandan Rocket. Both of those came about from some effort to design a more effective stove. Any town close to an abandoned mine or oil facility will have com
        • I rememeber something siimilar in one of Victor Papanek's books. It was made of old car plates, IIRC. (No, not the book).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gad_zuki! (70830)
      >just re-applications of existing items and concepts.

        Cars are just horseless carriages. The web is just a BBS with better graphics. Heart surgery is just hand surgery with more blood.

      Reapplication of existing items and concepts it almost the definition of invention.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by halcyon1234 (834388)
      And everything is just an extension of Object. So what?
    • Yeah, I applaud them for trying to find ways to help, but these really aren't "inventions," just re-applications of existing items and concepts.
      Isn't that what all inventions are?
  • Mousetrap (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wandm (969392) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:47PM (#20947053)
    Have you ever tried to catch mice?

    If you have, you will know how brilliant idea the normal mousetrap actually is. It's ridiculously cheap and efficient, and has practically remained the same for almost 100 years. Here is a link to the pantent:

    http://inventors.about.com/od/weirdmuseums/ig/History-of-Mousetraps/James-Doubt---Mousetrap-Patent.htm [about.com]
    • I seem to recall seeing a statistic somewhere (Harper's list in utne, mayhaps?) that had the number of patent applications for mousetraps one specific year being around 4. The following year, when the Emerson said the thing about "build a better mousetrap...", there were a ton more.

      Mod me off topic, (karma to burn, yadda yadda...) but I thought this crowd would appreciate it...
    • by ajs318 (655362)
      I read a report where some university or other tried various methods of controlling mice: different designs of lethal and non-lethal traps, poisons, non-lethal repellents &c.

      The best results taking all factors into account were obtained using a cat.
      • by turing_m (1030530)
        The best results taking all factors into account except allergies were obtained using a cat.

        Fixed that for you. ;)

      • cats have problems of thier own though. The biggest being that some people have allergies to them and they can be a trip hazard.

  • by EaglemanBSA (950534) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @06:59PM (#20947181)
    My master's degree is design of an appropriate technology vehicle -- turns out, the appropriate technology movement was abandoned, even to the point of making the phrase a faux-pas in the engineering community based on the idea that it provided mediocre solutions, and that the modern world was simply trying to placate the developing world with sub-par solutions. After projects like the OLPC however, I think it's become evident that applications of simple technology to problems that demand it deserve just as much attention. Giving someone who can't afford gasoline or buy spare car parts a car is like giving Robinson Caruso a cell phone where he can't get reception.
  • here [umsl.edu] is an article about Shawn at MIT, in a class where they come up with this kind of stuff. Article is by Pagan Kennedy [google.com] in the New York Times.
    • by arbitraryaardvark (845916) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `raebtg'> on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:41PM (#20947701) Homepage Journal
      http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2004/10/65276 [wired.com]
      A MacGyver for the Third World
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/aidg/612856202/in/set-72157600466239024/ [flickr.com]
      flickr
      http://instapundit.com/archives2/010388.php [instapundit.com]
      instapundit is blogging the conference
      http://www.aidg.org/component/option,com_jd-wp/Itemid,34/p,33/ [aidg.org]
      some blog
      Shawn Frayne is the founder of Haddock Invention LLC and its recent spin-off company, Humdinger Wind Energy, LLC. The mission of these companies is two-fold. First, to create technologies that can address long-standing problems in developing countries; and second, to leverage the novel aspects of those inventions through licensing deals in capital-rich nations such as the U.S., thereby generating a self-supporting revenue stream for the projects.

      His work has so far focused in the fields of solar water disinfection, inflatable packaging, food preservation, charcoal-production, and wind power generation, with several products successfully licensed or sold. It was during his time as a student in MIT's D-Lab that Shawn first became convinced that the key inventions of the next century won't necessarily be born in wealthy countries. Rather, the new industries of the coming years will be founded on breakthrough technologies invented in Haiti or Zambia or Guatemala, where the hardest problems in the world will yield the greatest inventions.
      • by khallow (566160)

        His work has so far focused in the fields of solar water disinfection, inflatable packaging, food preservation, charcoal-production, and wind power generation, with several products successfully licensed or sold. It was during his time as a student in MIT's D-Lab that Shawn first became convinced that the key inventions of the next century won't necessarily be born in wealthy countries. Rather, the new industries of the coming years will be founded on breakthrough technologies invented in Haiti or Zambia or Guatemala, where the hardest problems in the world will yield the greatest inventions.

        I disagree with that. The hardest problems remain in the developed world. It's because the problems of the poorer countries have already been solved by the developed world. The inventions above are more ways to help progress to the massive technological infrastructure of the developed world.

        Having said that, I could see in the not so distant future, an extremely wealthy, long-lived person or group taking over one of worst of these regions and carrying it into the future. I think all you need is a combin

  • Water purification (Score:5, Informative)

    by Amoeba (55277) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @07:45PM (#20947737)
    I read an article some time ago which outlined a very low-tech way to help purify water in countries with high incidences of Malaria, Dysentery, etc. By painting the surface of huts/housing flat black and placing clear plastic water bottles on them for a few hours. The sun & UV help to kill off most parasites and biological pathogens quite effectively and at a price much cheaper than other filtration solutions. Nice low-tech solution which is cheap, effective, and requires no special equipment.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by falconwolf (725481)

      I read an article some time ago which outlined a very low-tech way to help purify water in countries with high incidences of Malaria, Dysentery, etc. By painting the surface of huts/housing flat black and placing clear plastic water bottles on them for a few hours. The sun & UV help to kill off most parasites and biological pathogens quite effectively and at a price much cheaper than other filtration solutions. Nice low-tech solution which is cheap, effective, and requires no special equipment.

      Severa

    • by evilviper (135110) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @10:39PM (#20949051) Journal

      By painting the surface of huts/housing flat black and placing clear plastic water bottles on them for a few hours. The sun & UV help to kill off most parasites and biological pathogens quite effectively

      You've got that wrong, one way or another...

      For UV sterilization, you want a highly reflective surface, that will reflect the UV back through the water a second time, as most organisms are already adapted to handle 1X sun-levels of UV. Better yet, of course, is a solar concentrator that will focus several more times as much UV at the water.

      "Black" sounds like an attempt to use solar heat to raise the water temperature, but if so, it's unlikely to confer much of its heat to the bottle of water in this manner, and especially in winter, I doubt it will get near enough to boiling to do a good job of sterilization. Plus, it's not uncommon for such methods to have difficulty killing larger hardier organisms (parasite/insect larva).

      Personally, I'm a much bigger fan of an even cheaper and simpler method; percolating water through a couple meters of fine sand to naturally remove 99% of contaminants. Instead of just killing biological contaminants, it also removes suspended solids and similar contamination that causes water to taste terrible. And it's so simple and uses widely and cheaply available materials (quite unlike paint or polished metal) even the poorest individuals can replicate sand filters.

      The WHO apparently agrees: "Under suitable circumstances, slow sand filtration may be not only the cheapest and simplest but also the most efficient method of water treatment."
    • Perhaps you meant this one?

      LifeStraw [lifestraw.com]

      or with some critical comments added: Wikipedia: LifeStraw [wikipedia.org]

      Bye egghat
  • Yeesh... enough said.
  • This nefarious landmine I wound not say has 'helped' but it surely has changed lives. Its a plastic mine very little metal content, inexpensive and is the most widely seeded mine in the world. This is the kind of change the world did not and should not ever have needed. Perhaps one day, a high tech soln can dispose of these low tech scourges. There has been a lot of progress but still, its the de-miner with the stick and a face shield that gets them out today.
    • by ajs318 (655362)
      Why do you need a high-tech solution for de-mining? All you need is a fast-breeding nuisance animal that is heavy enough to set off the mines. Release a few of them into the minefields, and wait. As the minefields get emptier, you sterilise the animals (two housebricks will do, if there's nothing better available) before you release them ..... that way you don't replace one problem with another.
  • Use them NOW (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @09:20PM (#20948465) Journal
    Use these energy saving systems NOW in countries like the USA and Europe. Conserve energy NOW, especially oil and natgas. Oil can be made into all kinds of amazing substances and burning it up as fuel is like making logs out of $20 bills. Natgas is great for making into fertiliser. We need oil for materials and natgas for food. We need to use Other Technologies for electrical generation (Solar, Wind, hydro, nuke, geothermal, whatever) so we can stretch out our supply of petrochemicals as long as possible.

    People can do their part by using these personal conservation technologies in their own lives.

    A few times a week, I set out a big pot of stew or chili or soup in my solar cooker. Even in the dead of winter, I come home to a hot meal at the end of the day. It Works. And it's awesome.

    RS

    • by shomon2 (71232)
      Where did you get, or how did you make the solar cooker?
      • I bought a book. It has instructions. You can buy it on Amazon [amazon.com]

        It's called Cooking With the Sun" by Dan and Beth Halacy.

        Go for it! They're dead cheap to make and if built really well and cared for, can last a lifetime. The energy savings are absurdly huge, and the experience of "slow food" cooking is good preparation.

        I would also recommend learning about hay box cooking... it's not solar, but it uses an order of magnitude less energy - all you do is heat up the contents to a high degree of temperature,

  • by codeknitter (1172483) on Thursday October 11, 2007 @09:50PM (#20948723) Homepage
    The Stoves BioEnergy Discussion List (web site http://www.bioenergylists.org/ [bioenergylists.org]) is a really great resource if you are interested in the global effort to build better, cheaper, low tech cooking stoves. Appropriate technology isn't dead, it's thriving in a lot of these areas where there are limited resources, and not a lot of press coverage. This is My favorite Darfur stove: http://www.bioenergylists.org/en/taxonomy/term/909 [bioenergylists.org] It can be built in the refugee camp instead of shipped there, and it can easily be modified to handle charcoal. Fuel flexibility is important when there are limited resources.
  • The lowest of them all: politics.

This place just isn't big enough for all of us. We've got to find a way off this planet.

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