- Published on 26 Jun 2010
Celebrating the technological heritage of Cape Town, writes Mike Bruton (Published in the Cape Argus 1 October 2010)
Cape Town's bid to be recognized as the World Design Capital in 2014 will take into account a wide range of achievements and aspirations in architecture, town and regional planning, landscaping, art and other fields. Although we have a reputation for being laid back, at least compared to the hard-working inhabitants of the 'Big Smoke' in Gauteng, this is belied by the fact that Capetonians have been extraordinarily productive, and creative, in the fields of science and technology. This is demonstrated by the wide variety of discoveries made by Cape Town-based scientists (not covered here), and also by the extraordinary range of inventions (more relevant to a 'design' award) that have been made by people who have lived or studied in Cape Town over the years.
These inventions, and their inventors, include:
- The Greathead Shield was invented by James Greathead, who was born and educated in Grahamstown, but completed his schooling at Bishops in Cape Town before he emigrated to England in 1859. There he achieved international fame with the invention of the Shield, which was used to excavate many tunnels for the London Underground in the 1870s to 1890s.
- Benjamin Ginsberg, who first recognized the potential of rooibos leaves for making tea in 1904.
- Professor J Goetz who invented the Plethysmograph for peripheral blood flow measurement in 1943.
- Although the radio and infra red tellurometers were invented by the late Trevor Wadley and Dick Holscher of Johannesburg, a Cape Town company, Tellurometer (Pty) Ltd, made this famous distance-measuring device for export worldwide from the 1950s to the 1990s.
- The innovative and highly competitive Dart and Flamingo sports cars were developed in Stellenbosch and Cape Town by Bob van Niekerk, Willie Meissner and Verster de Wit in the 1950s and 60s.
- A range of world class lever-drag fishing reels, Policanksy Reels, has been designed and made in Cape Town by Maxwell's Engineering since 1965.
- In 1976 Peter Simmonds of Cape Town, a priest with an engineering background, invented the Jaws Adjustable Candle Holder, which can hold candles of different diameters.
- Alan Cormack of Cape Town and British medical technologist, Godrey Hounsfield, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1979 for inventing the CATscanner, which is used in every major hospital in the world today.
- Dr Bernard Woolf and partners of Cape Town invented Optoscan Plus for detecting retinal defects in 1978.
- Cape Town architect and designer, Al Stratford, developed the Winblok modular concrete block building system in 1980.
- Dr Solly Lison of Cape Town invented the NEG*AIDS Disposable Surgical Visor in 1988.
- Capetonians Oliver Mcleod-Smith and James Fisher invented the Snake Board in 1989.
- In 1990, Cape Town songwriter, Peter Robinson, invented Tric Tac Toe, a three-dimensional noughts and crosses game.
- Aerodyne in Cape Town developed the Lotus monocoque bicycle frame that was used by Briton Chris Boardman to break the world indoor bicycle speed record, and win gold at the Barcelona Olympics, in 1992. Aerodyne also made seats for the Concorde supersonic aeroplane.
- In 1992, Dr Surajudin Latief of cape Town invented the Clocktower Sectional Passenger Tyre Repair System for repairing both radial and crossply tyres. In 2000 he also developed a special Prayer Chair for elderly or infirm Muslims.
- In 1994, Joan and Ian Brown of Cape Town invented the Keyless Safety Lock to prevent young children from accessing stored household medicines and poisons.
- Peter Wallenda of Cape Town pioneered the development of parafoil kites in South Africa in 1995.
- Jannie Wessels of Cape Town invented the Bright Weights diver buoyancy system in 1996.
- In 1996, the Turboheat Solar Spiral, a novel solar water heater, was invented by Alan Walton of Cape Town.
- In 1996, Louis Liebenberg and Justin Steventon of Cape Town invented the Cybertracker, a palmtop/GPS device that is used for recording data in the field, and is now used worldwide by game rangers, forensic scientists and foresters.
- Viböl and Türbol Exhaust Vibration Balancers were invented in 1996 by Jacobus Cronje of Cape Town, and are now sold worldwide.
- In 1998 Valerie Buhlmann-Strydom of Cape Town developed a range of Herb Hair hair growth products. In 2000, she invented EasyTurn for turning over patients in hospital beds.
- In 1998 a team of medical doctors in Cape Town developed the Diagnosa, a cost-effective, PC-based digital medical diagnostic system.
- Mark Shuttleworth developed the Thawte Internet Security System in his parent's garage in Cape Town in 1995, and sold it in 1999 for R3.5-billion.
- In the early 2000s, John Hutchinson and other Capetonians, working through the Freeplay Energy Group, invented an innovative range of wind-up radios, torches and cell phone chargers. More recently, they collaborated with Professor David Woods and his team at Groote Schuur Hospital to develop wind-up medical apparatus, including a Foetal Heart Rate Monitor and Pulse Oximeter.
- In 2001, the late Graeme Wells of Cape Town produced a range of fine Afri-Can oilcan guitars and violins, based on the indigenous ramkie, that have been used by famous musicians such as Jimmy Dlu Dlu, Lucky Dube, Sipho Gumede, Alan Kwela, Brian May and Roger Taylor.
- In 2001, Dean Geraghty of Cape Town invented the Four-Way Fin System, which allows a surfer to adjust the position and angle of his/her surfboard fins.
- Johan Loots of Hout Bay invented the innovative Sit-in/Sit-on Kayak in 2002, which is now used worldwide.
- Components of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), in particular the Spherical Aberration Corrector (SAC), were developed by Dr Darragh O'Donoghue of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Observatory, Cape Town, in 2003.
- In 2003, Bradley and Ben Orkin invented the 'Junior Tradesman' children's building game.
Other inventions and inventors from further afield in the Western Cape include:
In 1992, Henri Johnson of Stellenbosch invented SpeedBall for measuring the speed and trajectory of a cricket ball. In 2002, he invented Flightscope, the first 3D Doppler tracking radar system for registering the flight of a golf ball.
In 1994, farmer Terry Negus of Somerset West invented the Tree Popper, a leverage tool used to remove alien trees.
In 1997, Graeme Murray of Laaiplek invented the ergonomically-designed Orthoped bicycle saddle, and later a carbon fibre bicycle crank and continuously variable bicycle transmission.
In 1997, Herman Heunus of Stellenbosch invented the MXIT instant cell phone messaging application.
Staff and students at the University of Stellenbosch developed the SUNsat microsatellite, which was launched by NASA in 1999. In 2010 their SumbandilaSAT microsatellite was launched by the Russians.
In 2003, Jamie Hamlin of Somerset West invented the adjustable Performer Canoe Seat.
These lists, of course, exclude the unknown indigenous inventors whose knowledge lead to the development of a wide range of products that we use today, including hand tools, fish traps, Hoodia appetite suppressant, rooibos and honeybush teas and healthcare products, buchu medicines, and kelp soil binders and conditioners. And let's not forget about our unique culinary contributions, including bobotie, bokkom, breyani, bunnychow, kedgeree, Mrs Ball's chutney, roti, oepsies, saboertjies, smoorsnoek and waterblommetjiebredie!
In addition to being aware of the achievements of our extraordinary Cape inventors, perhaps we should also commemorate them in our city by erecting statues of the inventors (or, even better, their inventions). James Greathead is commemorated in London by a 3m tall bronze statue that was unveiled in 1994 by the Lord Mayor of London next to the Royal Exchange, but he is not recognised in South Africa at all.
Perhaps the four Nobel Peace laureates in Nobel Square on the Waterfront should be complemented by statues of South Africa's four Nobel Science laureates (Max Theiler, Alan Cormack, Aaron Klug, Sydney Brenner), even though only Cormack is from the Cape. At least this would demonstrate that we are just as proud of our technological heritage as we are of our political, arts, music and natural history heritages.
Professor Mike Bruton is Director of Imagineering at MTE Studios, a consultancy company in Cape Town that specializes in themed architecture and edutainment. He was founder of the MTN Sciencentre and is author of the book 'Great South African Inventions' published by Cambridge University Press (2010).