OSCAR CARLSSON (1928 – 2017) Inventor of the Sholapur Hand Pump (basis of the India Mark II Pump)

by Ruper Talbot

Oscar Carlsson, famed designer of the Sholapur hand pump on which the India MK II is based, died in Sweden on January 18th aged 89. Ingrid, his wife of some 60 years, a teacher and social worker, died four months ago.

Oscar’s funeral will take place in his home town of Kristianstad, southern Sweden on February 11th.

Oscar and Ingrid worked together for many years in Sholapur, Maharashtra State, western India, under the auspices of the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden and the Hindustani Covenant Church.

Oscar Carlsson was a rare being, blessed with out-of-the-box imagination and clever engineering skills that he translated into practical solutions to every day technical and social problems. The Sholapur hand pump was perhaps his greatest contribution to improving the lives of rural people, his efforts magnified many times over by the mass produced India MKII.

From technical, trade school teacher in Sweden to managing the Sholapur Well Service in India, Oscar quickly adapted to his new environment, sharing his engineering expertise and teaching workshop practice and draughtsmanship while dreaming up better water lifting devices for the bore wells drilled by his project in the hard basalt of Maharashtra. It is with hand pumps that Oscar’s name is most closely associated.

Unicef is sometimes wrongly credited with inventing the India MKII hand pump and designing it from scratch. While it is true that the pump would not have seen the light of day without Unicef, it is also true that without the pioneering work of the NGO community in Maharashtra, especially Oscar Carlson with his Sholapur pump, there would not have been a MK II at all.  Apart form the pump itself, Oscar devised ball valves for the pump cylinder and a sand trap in the rising main to extend the life of (the then) leather cup washers, amongst many other ingenious ideas to improve efficiency and longevity, all of this, back in the 1970s.

His pivot mechanism for the pump handle, which cleverly avoids lateral stress to the bearings, and his chain and quadrant to maintain alignment and keep the connecting rods in tension that he designed nearly 50 years ago, remain virtually unchanged in the MKII. There are several other features of the pump that still carry Oscar’s imprint and he was pleased with the association, (though he never quite forgave Unicef for not incorporating internal handle stops to prevent crushed fingers in the final design).

The Sholapur hand pump laid the foundation for the India MK II development programme and it was Oscar’s inventive genius and the magnanimity of the Sholapur Well Service in freely sharing his ideas that enabled this to happen.

In recent times, I spent several days each year with Oscar at his home in Kristianstad, reinventing hand pumps (as one does) and debating solar water pumping as The Next Big Thing. Oscar became fascinated by solar. We investigated tracking devices to optimise the use of costly solar panels and purchased a sophisticated German tracker to figure out how it worked. Oscar then cobbled together a design of his own from an old VW windscreen wiper motor and other bits and pieces lying around in his work shop, and set up a test rig on his garage roof to compare performance, correlating his findings with theoretical readings back in India.

And then, a couple of years ago, when he was well into his eighties and we had become alarmed at the plummeting water tables in India’s hard rock areas, he worked on a diaphragm operated cylinder attachment to make pumping easier at depth. I was to have field tested this in India last year, but sadly, time was not on our side.

Oscar was always thinking of something new and never stopped working at his drawing board or with a newly acquired CAD programme, until last year when Alzheimer’s began to take its toll, and then cancer took hold…

These days, it is fashionable to decry the efforts of NGOs and mission based ‘do gooders’. But amongst them are some rare gems. Oscar was one such from the early days of rural development. The 6 million or so MK II hand pumps in India and the thousands more in other countries are a magnificent tribute to Oscar’s engineering prowess and timeless, practical designs. It is something of a tragedy then, that many manufacturers today use inferior material and ignore the specifications and quality norms so critical to the reliability of a MK II hand pump (or anything else for that matter).

Nevertheless, countless rural communities still benefit from Oscar’s creative mind, So, on behalf of them all and on behalf of his many friends and admirers around the world, let me just say, thank you Oscar. Yours was a most useful and valuable life, well lived.

RIP

Ruper Talbot, 8th February 2017

Oscar Carlsson was the first to be designated as Swede of the year Abroad. It happened in 1988 when the Swedes Worldwide celebrated its 50th anniversary.

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