Inventing the future : Some encouragement from the past

When I was an aspiring geographer at Wits university way back in the past century I was introduced to a South African invention that had changed the way in which the whole world worked in measuring distances between points many kilometres apart to an accuracy of 1 cm !

Named the tellurometer by its South Afr9ican inventor Dr. Trevor Lloyd Wadley of the Telecommunications Research Laboratory of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research this amazing instrument emits an electronic wave that travels between from one point to another where it is picked up and returned to the point of origin. The split second to make the journey is converted to give the distance apart. The tellurometer penetrates haze and mist in daylight or darkness and has a normal range of 30–50 km but can extend up to 70 km.

Variations of this original invention are now used throughout the world. Amazing yes ? But remembering Dr Wadley’s work got me thinking about other South African inventions that are being used throughout the world :

Take the dolos for example. The dolos is the Afrikaans name given to the knuckle-joint of an ox that was used as a child’s plaything in the time of the Great Trek. But today the name is known throughout the world as a safeguard against storm damage by high seas. Hundreds of concrete dolases are dropped along the sides of coastal structures wherever potentially damaging tidal surges occur. Their design is usually credited to two South African harbour engineers Aubrey Kruger and Eric Merrifield, concerned about the damage that a recent storm had done to the harbour at East London. The story goes that after the storm Kruger went home for lunch, cut three sections from a broomstick, and fastened them with nails into an H-shape with one leg turned through 90 degrees to create the istinctive dolos shape. Merrifield was intrigued by the object and had Kruger draw a plan. And the rest, as they say, is history. Dolosses work by dissipating, rather than blocking, the energy of waves. Their design deflects most wave action energy to the side, making them more difficult to dislodge than objects of a similar weight presenting a flat surface. Though they are placed into position on top of each other by cranes, over time, they tend to get further entangled as the waves shift them. Their design ensures that they form an interlocking, but porous, wall that, apart from preventing erosion provides a habitat for numerous sea organisms.

And what about Pratley’s Epoxy Putty ? When the Americans landed on the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong and his team had a bit of South Africa with them – Pratley’s Putty, an adhesive agent invented by South African engineer and inventor George Pratley. Initially called Pratley Plastic Putty, it was developed by Pratley in the early 1960s as an insulator and an adhesive agent for fixing brass terminals inside cast-iron cable-junction boxes. But as its application uses became widely recognised the Putty was used in many different ways. It was so effective that it was used on Apollo 11’s Eagle landing craft in the moon landing of 1969. Apart from the moon landing it was used to halt cracking in one of the main supports of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, United States.

If you are a cricket fan you will know about the ‘speed gun’ that smart piece of equipment that can accurately measure the speed at which a bowler bowls a cricket ball. Invented by a Somerset West inventor Henri Johnson, the speed gun was first used at the Oval in England during the 1999 Cricket World Cup. As another contribution to sport in Johnson also invented the Speedball which accurately measures the speed of tennis balls and cricket balls.

And last, but by no means least with a list of amazing South African inventions what about the Scheffel Bogie ? Never heard of a Scheffel Bogie ? The next time you enjoy a comfortable, vibration-free ride on your local suburban train, think of Herbert Scheffel, the man who kept the South African Railways on track.

Until 1975 our trains, running on a relatively narrow gauge line with a fixed bogie (a sort of chassis for trains) experienced a great deal of vibration in the carriages and wear and tear on the metal train wheels and rails. Derailings were also frequent as the wheels tended to jump the line on corners causing injuries to people and costing many rands in track repair costs.

To solve the problem of a rigid bogie with a rectangular chassis Scheffel designed a flexible ‘cross anchor’ bogie with a high wheel profile that allowed the inner and outer wheels to accommodate to each other on curves, and also dampen the lateral forces that produce vibrations – making for a smoother, less noisy ride for passengers.

Over the years the Scheffel Bogie has steadily gained ground in the world marketplace and has been adopted in parts of eastern Europe and south-east Asia. So – not only is the Bogie saving millions of rands in railway infrastructure management costs, it has also generated significant export earnings.

There are many many more inventions that South Africans have developed – from pool cleaners to sprung-steel tent pegs. This must mean that there are many more new inventions yet to be developed. What about it Midlands entrepreneurs ? There must be SOMEONE with a good idea that can be patented and which can bring fame and glory both to both the inventor and the place we all call home.