EILEEN TURCOTTE December 1 1968


EILEEN TURCOTTE December 1 1968



HECTOR AUDET, a mechanical engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ont., spends his working hours figuring out futuristic designs for a 500-megawatt nuclear reactor that could provide enough electric power for four cities the size of Ottawa.

After work he goes home to nearby Deep River and figures out how to build old-fashioned wooden pumps and activate them by one-man power — possibly a person jumping up and down on a springboard.

Audet isn’t rebelling against the immensity of the Atomic Age world he works in. He’s a member of VITA (Volunteers for International Technical Assistance), a fast-growing, unpaid group that helps underdeveloped countries find answers to problems the bigger aid agencies don’t have time for, and charges absolutely nothing for the service.

Twenty-six of the 75 Canadians now active in VITA live in Deep River, the placid little town of scientists that boasts more brains per square acre than any other community in Canada. Although they've got some of the most advanced scientists in the world on their roster, no problem is too small for VITA-men. For instance:

Mel Feraday, Jack Bradley and Harold Merlin — all founding members of the Deep River chapter — are helping patients in Tanzania’s Makete Leprosarium find cheap steel suitable for making marimbas. The lepers had used old umbrella spokes, but their supply is drying up. Mel, a 39-year-old nuclearfuel design engineer, analyzed the umbrella wire and wrote to eight Canadian companies, asking if they could supply a similar, inexpensive metal. Four wrote back that they were unable to quote prices; the other four didn’t bother answering.

“This may seem like a small thing to a metal manufacturer in Canada, but it could be a main source of income for the leprosarium,” says Hank Merlin. The Deep River volunteers arc continuing to look for likely metal sources. In the meantime, they suggested, the lepers should try varied strips of native wood, bent by steaming.

The volunteers’ biggest hang-up is thatthey can seldom use obvious solutions for problems besetting underdeveloped countries. That’s why Hector Audet had so much trouble with his pumps.

“It would be easy to send plans for a highly efficient modern machine, or even to find the money to send readymade equipment, but villagers in the underdeveloped countries we’re trying to help don’t have the materials or knowhow to make or maintain anything sophisticated,” he says. “We have to figure

out methods that might have been used 300 to 400 years ago in Europe.”

Audet tried to get construction plans for oldtime manually operated wooden pumps from a Canadian manufacturer, but they couldn’t find any. So he spent his summer weekends poring over old technology handbooks, tracking down remaining models in Ontario farmsteads and at Upper Canada Village, and working out the simplest way to reconstruct them.

Audet is getting advice on how best to operate the pumps by manpower from another Deep River project. Bill Langford, Bill Rumball and Brian Cox, three AEC scientists from England, are studying human muscle power to see whether bicycle or rowing mechanisms are more effective in man-driven equipment. So far they’ve found the legs beat the arms by a country mile, but they still have to compare different methods in actual workouts. They’re hoping to get inmates at nearby penitentiaries interested in making physical tests. If not, they’ll try to get volunteers from the Deep River health club.

Voice of VITA: ham radio?

They’ve got offers from Deep River’s ham-radio club to try to help them communicate directly with people they’re aiding across the world. A ham network is also being pondered at VITA’s headquarters in Schenectady, N.Y., which since 1960 has been funneling requests for help to several thousand VITA members in the United States and other countries, mainly the U.K., Australia, the Philippines, India and Canada.

VITA has only 18 salaried employees on its staff and it operates on a shoestring budget ($250,000 this year), yet it has so far answered 13,000 re-

quests, and the number grows every year.

Some problems take months of work; others can be solved in a few hours. Jack Bradley took just one afternoon (when he would otherwise have been skiing) to draw up six pages of plans for an effective dryer-chamber for a hospital near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The staff there had been having trouble drying clothes used in the operating room during the rainy season. Bradley’s report proved so successful that they’re now expanding it into a broader study of psychrometry and drying principles to help VITA “clients” in other tropical areas.

The range of problems seems endless. Among others the Deep River chapter has dealt with:

□ A man in Guayaquil, Ecuador, wanted to know how to speed up fermentation of honey mead so it could be sold at moderate prices “as to be consumed by the poor people also.”

□ A Peace Corps worker in Huancayo, Peru, wanted advice on stocking 15,000foot-high mountain lakes with trout, to boost the nutrition of Andean Indians.

□ A woodyard operator in Bolivia wanted to know where to get lighter-than-air balloons to transport lumber out of inaccessible areas.

□ A former patient at a maternity hospital in Lagos wanted plans for making simple incubators so that she could build some for the hospital.

□ A missionary priest in Yon Pyong Islands, Korea, wanted to help fishermen there find a way of preserving their catch without expensive refrigeration. He prefaced his long involved request in a way bound to appeal to VITA-men: “Dear Sirs, 1 could go on for a sentence or two in praise of the work you are doing, but I hope this letter will serve to show how I appreciate your activities and how highly I value them.” ★