Dave Irvine-Halliday: Lighting Up the World

Award-winning electrical engineer Dave Irvine-Halliday is a man with a mission: bringing light to homes, schools, and temples throughout the developing world.
For some, Scottish-born Dave Irvine-Halliday’s work as an electrical engineer might seem too complicated for words. Indeed, his résumé, posted on the Web site of the University of Calgary, where he works as an associate professor, describes one of his projects as “photonic biological intercellular communications”—an endeavor that few people are likely to be able to grasp. But for thousands of people in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru, and Irian Jaya, the work Irvine-Halliday does is profoundly tangible.

In 1997, Irvine-Halliday, a bearded, rugged-looking man, took a sabbatical from his teaching post in Canada and went to Nepal to help a Kathmandu-based university launch its own electrical engineering program. While there, he took a side trip into the heart of the Himalayas, on a trek along the Annapurna Circuit. Along the way, he visited a small village where he noticed that children were forced to study in the dark—or more likely, were not able to study at all—after the sun went down because there was no electricity. 

Irvine-Halliday decided to bring his professional expertise to bear on the problem. He quickly poured his energy, his family’s entire life savings, and the maximum limit on three credit cards into an organization he named “Light Up the World.” Working from his lab at the University of Calgary, he devised a plan for bringing low-cost lighting to villages without any reliable power supply: He would create energy with a pedal-powered generator, a hydro generator, or solar panels, then run lines into homes and connect them to low-energy lamps. In 1999, Irvine-Halliday went back to Nepal with his wife and one of his two grown sons to try out his idea. It worked.

Since then, Irvine-Halliday and his Light Up the World team have brought light to thousands of homes in dozens of villages around the world. Irvine-Halliday often goes on these missions himself—no small feat for a man who, at 60, carries his own backpack, which he reportedly fills with just three T-shirts, two pairs of socks, a jacket, a pair of fleece pants, two pairs of boxers, a toothbrush, and a pair of scissors to trim his beard.

On Oct. 23, Irvine-Halliday was honored as a 2002 Rolex Laureate, a prestigious US$100,000 award given out by the Swiss watchmaker to pay tribute to people who have made an important contribution to bettering our world. Irvine-Halliday has certainly done just that. One Nepali woman reportedly explained: “When Light Up the World came to the village, they not only brought light into our homes, but light into our hearts.”