Keep watching the MacArthur Fellows

Future Tense for Oct. 7, 2007

By Steve Welker

According to my calculations, Amy Smith could buy 1.89 million pounds of flour to feed the starving people of Africa.

Instead, the “MacGyver of MIT” improved an ancient tool so women could make their own flour. Amy Smith’s improved hammermill flour-grinder costs one fourth the price and uses only 70 percent of the energy of devices it replaces and can be built (and repaired) locally in places like Senegal and Botswana.

To paraphrase an old saying, you buy a person a loaf of bread and feed him for a day. Amy Smith helps people make flour to feed themselves for a lifetime.

For that and other imaginative inventions -- among them the phase-change incubator and eco-friendly charcoal -- Amy Smith became a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2004. She will receive $100,000 annually (it's sometimes called "the genius grant") through 2009 to work on whatever interests her.

What interests Smith, an associate professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are decidedly low-tech, locally sustainable solutions to problems in Third World countries. Investing a great deal of brain power instead of money and without relying on high-tech gadgetry, she and her students also invented a low-cost, non-electrical incubator that tests water for microorganisms; a $20 water-testing kit that replaces a $1,000 analyzer; ways to produce clean-burning charcoal from sugar cane and bean curd; a chlorination system using salvaged flush-toilet parts; and peanut shellers made from junkyard scrap.

“A lot of people look at where technology is right now and start from there, instead of looking at the absolute functionality,” Smith said. “If you go back to the most basic principles, you can eliminate complexity. The stuff I do is just very simple solutions to things, which is critical when you are developing applications for the third world.”

To solve the milling problem, Smith had to escape the mindset that drove people to build big, high-tech grain mills.

Humans for thousands of years have used “technology” to turn grain into edible food products. Naturally protected by hard, indigestible hulls or shells, grains can’t be eaten raw. Crushed or cut, however, the inner meal is nutritious and versatile and the indigestible parts provide necessary fiber.

Ancient people crushed grain with rocks, later inventing the mortar and pestle and then the quern, a saddle-shaped stone designed to make it easier to separate flour or meal from hulls. According to my friends at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History — you really should visit it, by the way; it’s now open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is only $4 for adults and $2 for students — a woman using a mortar and pestle could grind one ear’s worth of corn into a cup of meal in 30 minutes and make enough for a family’s cornbread in an hour.

As populations grew, so did the demand for better ways to grind grain. Among the ancient solutions were hammermills that both cut and crushed the grain. In illustrated stories from the Bible, you may have seen pictures of a donkey plodding around one of these mills, driving a roller over the grain. The problem with hammermills was separating flour from the hulls.

Another solution was the grist mill. It turned a flattened millstone over a stationary set stone. “Faced” with narrow channels, the millstones spun out ground grain into a system of sieves and separators. A good operator with an adequate supply of water power could grind six bushels of corn and wheat per hour, producing more than a barrel (196 pounds) of flour.

The Pilgrims built the first American grist mill at Plymouth in 1636. It remained in operation until 1847 when it was destroyed by fire. Reconstructed in 1970, it still operates with the same water-powered technology used 300 years ago. It grinds fresh cornmeal daily.

Water-powered Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most-photographed site on the parkway. Ed Mabry, who built it, probably wouldn’t recognize it were he alive today. Ed, like Amy Smith, valued solutions. He didn’t worry about making a beautiful scenic park; he wanted a working mill, so he put up his rickety flumes on sticks and, when the water supply became unreliable, installed an 8-horsepower kerosene engine to drive the mill. When the Virginia highway department cleared the parkway’s right-of-way in the 1930s, workers almost broke up the ramshackle mill for kindling. The National Park Service saved and improved it, built the beautiful reflecting pond and sturdy flumes, trucked in historic buildings like the blacksmith shop and demolished Ed and Lizzie’s two-story frame house (cut from wood Ed milled himself) because it was “too modern.”

Mabry Mill grinds grain, but what it sells in the gift shop comes from another mill.

You can see a scale model of a grist mill at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Built by Peter Domville of Gastonia, it’s a work of art.

Unfortunately, grist mills won’t solve Africa’s problem.

What Amy Smith found there — she spent four years in Africa as a Peace Corps worker — is a complex problem, but it comes down to a couple of simple facts. One is the lack of energy; there are few streams to generate water power and few villages have electricity. Another fact is that commercial grain mills’ product is too expensive for poor Africans. And the third is that modern milled flour simply is neither as nutritious nor as useful for cooking what the native tribes need.

Smith’s solution was to reinvent the hammermill, creating a device without high-tech, expensive screens that could not be manufactured locally and with low-cost, easily manufactured parts.

Hers may be the first radical reinvention of the hammermill in the past 1,400 years (and that was in Japan, so no one in the West knew about it until the 1800s, by which time grist mills were well established).

How does Smith explain her success finding low-tech solutions for modern problems?

“Looking at things from a more basic level, you can come up with a more direct solution and a lot of people go well, duh, that’s really obvious!” Smith told Wired magazine in an interview. “But that’s what you want: people saying it should have been done that way all along. It may sound small in theory, but it in practice, it can change entire economies.”

That kind of thinking is rare, which is why the MacArthur Foundation gave Amy Smith $500,000 to do more of it.

This year she was one of the lead organizers of the first International Design Summit held at MIT from July 16 to Aug. 10. The group talked about problems in the developing world and then began creating real, workable solutions. They quickly produced an off-grid refrigeration unit that uses evaporative cooling to store perishable food. The group also designed a low-cost greenhouse that can be made from recycled and widely available materials.

To once again paraphrase that old maxim, create one invention and you can build a company.

Create an assemblage of inventors and you can build the future.

That's part of the idea behind the MacArthur Foundation Fellowships. The newest recipients were named about two weeks ago. The announcement, as it does every year, led to a lot of publicity and interviews with many, if not all, of the recipients. Then they quickly faded out of the news. A search of Google News this week turned up only 47 mentions of MacArthur Fellows including several from previous years.

They may have stepped out of the limelight, but these do not seem like the kind of people who will permanently drop out of sight. I expect that many, like Amy Smith, will continue to produce ideas, inventions, art, music, research and inspiration that will change the world for the better.

Just as I keep an eye on Amy Smith's career -- an eye frequently opened wide with delight -- I look forward to seeing what will come from the other MacArthur Fellows ... in the future.

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