Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Father of Invention
Ghulam Sediq Wardak holds a screwdriver and clamp in his dirty hands. The 62 year old, wearing a turban and the tradition shalwar kamiz costume, picks up an engine part from the floor of his Kabul workshop and attaches it to a partially built car.
Engine parts from the 1980 Volkswagen litter the floor, but Sediq moves purposefully amid the chaos. He screws six solar panels on to the roof, door and back of the vehicle.
He is adapting the car to his own design – and working against a deadline. In a week, the vehicle is scheduled to be driven through the streets of Kabul, without using petrol, water or batteries.
This prototype is expected to travel at just 25 kilometres per hour - but Sediq plans to improve the speed in future models.
He stands back to admire his work. Afghanistan’s first solar-powered car is being build by the country’s most famous inventor: a semi-literate peasant who already has 341 inventions to his credit.
“Do you want tea?” he asks his guests, and immediately calls a student to fetch some. The young man goes to a tin teapot in the kitchen which is powered by a solar panel.
When the water comes to the boil, the boy makes the tea, pours it into a traditional vacuum flask and serves it along with sweets.
Sitting in an old chair in his office, the wiry Pashtun, with grey hair and beard, begins his story. He says he was born in the central province of Wardak and spent much of his life working the land.
He received no formal education and, as a child, learned only the most basic reading and writing skills in Pashtu and Dari from the Islamic lessons he received at the mosque.
Sedig says he has always been curious about the things around him. As a youth, however, that curiosity led some to think he was either an idiot or mad.
“Father and mother worried about me,” he says. “More than twenty amulets hung around my neck [in the hope of a cure]. My father … was concerned in case I had mental problems, but the doctor gave me a checkup and said that I was fine."
He received a beating from his father when he took apart the family radio to see how it worked.
But at 17, he produced his first invention: a radio that operated without batteries. It was made out of a matchbox, wires, and headphones, and was powered by the low voltage electricity produced by a person’s body.
When the women of the village put on the headphones to try it out, they were so startled by the voice of a strange man on the radio that they modestly pulled their veils on.
He made more than a thousand of the radios which were sold at less than two US dollars a piece.
He said some simple and ordinary events of daily life have given him ideas.
He recalls how nearly burning down his house gave him the idea to invent a teakettle that automatically turns itself on and off.
"When I put the heating element in the pot to boil water, I left home to go shopping. On the way I had a chat with my friend and forgot all about the water and heater,” he says.
“When I got back home the water had evaporated. If I had returned a few minutes later, my home would have been burned down. So I thought of a heater, which would turn off automatically when the water was boiled and when the water gets cold, it would turn on again. And then I made it," he says.
In 1964, when he was 22, a theft in his village inspired him to invent a burglar alarm that would also take a picture of the intruder.
His system involved surrounding a house with concealed wires that were attached to a battery, an audio cassette player and a camera. When the intruder stepped on the wire, it triggered the cassette player, which played a tape shouting, “There’s a thief!”. It also activated the camera, which would take a picture of the burglar.
He says he worked feverishly on the alarm system for 15 days and eventually presented the design as a gift to Prince Ahmad Shah, the son of King Zaher Shah.
Becoming a father inspired him to invent a cradle that automatically rocks when the child is awake.
“My son was sick and cried. My wife asked me to rock the cradle,” he said. But he found this very boring, so “I thought of making a cradle work automatically." The movement of a restless child in the cradle would activate a motor that would rock the cradle for about five minutes. It the child did not fall asleep by then, its movement would once again set the cradle rocking.
But the device, which he produced in 1972, proved too expensive to become popular.
In 1996, he developed a solar-powered pump powerful enough to lift water from wells up to 20 metres deep. His invention is widely used in his home province of Wardak and the neighbouring province of Logar as well.
When he heard that unsanitary conditions promote the spread of bacteria and disease, he decided to invent an automatic hand washing system to promote cleanliness.
When someone steps on a contact located beneath a basin, it activates a stream of water from the tap and opens a drawer containing soap and a towel. When the person steps off the contact, the water stops and the drawer closes.
But it’s not just events close to home that have stirred his inventions. The death of hundreds of people in Bangladesh led him to develop an early warning machine that could indicate the speed of an approaching flood.
Sediq has four grown-up sons who support the family financially and he now devotes himself to inventing.
He received support for his solar-car project from Zulmai, the head of the Afghan Electronic and Technical Investigation Centre, a local non-governmental organization. Sediq lives in his house rent-free and receives a 200 dollar a month stipend from the centre for the duration of the car project.
He is widely admired among the academic community, although some point out that many of his inventions are not original within the global market.
"I have seen some of his inventions, like this car,” said Edrish, a lecturer in the electronics department of Kabul University. “They are new for Afghans, but these things have already been invented elsewhere in the world."
Sediq acknowledges he has never patented any of his inventions and so is unable to prove intellectual ownership of them. This lays him open to potential abuse.
But fame and riches have never been what motivated him.
"The main purpose of my inventing is not to earn money,” he says. “I want to render a service to my countrymen and to all people in the world."
Amanullah Nasrat is a freelance journalist in Kabul. Local editor Hafizullah Gardish also contributed to this report.
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