South Africa is never top of the list when people think of inventions, but perhaps that is because they don’t know we have some pretty heavy-hitting inventions used around the world.
Dr Chris Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant in Cape Town in December 1967 – literally giving a new lease on life to thousands of people. While working in Minneapolis in the United States, Barnard began wondering if it was possible to transplant a heart like a kidney – itself then a relatively new procedure. He performed his ground-breaking organ transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, paving the way for this procedure to be used all over the world. Sadly, and profoundly ironically, Barnard himself died of an easily preventable condition – an acute asthma attack – in Cyprus in 2001.
The medical industry was given another ground-breaking advancement from Allan Cormack, who developed the computerised axial tomography (CAT) scan. This South African physicist, along with British electrical engineer Godfrey Hounsfield, built the CAT scan at Tufts University in Boston in 1971. A CAT scan allowed doctors to see tomographic (cross-sectional) images of the inside of the human body. Interestingly, Cormack’s research began at Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town. Cormack and Hounsfield were jointly awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Eric Merrifield was the harbour engineer in East London when a storm ripped up the harbour in 1963. To rebuild the breakwater against the sea, Merrifield came up with the now-famous concrete blocks shaped like giant jumping jacks. Weighing up to 20 tonnes, these have been used around the world to create or reinforce harbours that don’t have natural protection from the sea. Rumours abound about whether Merrifield refused to patent the idea, hoping they would have a positive effect on humanity; or whether, because he was at work when he came up with the idea, the ownership would belong to his employer. Whatever the case, Merrifield’s dolosse are East London’s greatest contribution to the world.
Due to the apartheid sanctions, South Africa’s inability to import oil saw the development of Sasol’s Sasolburg refinery. It’s the world’s first and largest oil-from-coal refinery. Without oil reserves, the engineers worked out how to extract high-grade synthetic fuels and chemicals from low-grade coal. It unfortunately gave the apartheid government its own source of fuel, when sanctions were biting, but it is nonetheless a remarkable engineering achievement. At one point, it provided 40% of South Africa’s fuel.
For sheer convenience, the Kreepy Krauly is generally considered our best-ever invention. A sea of swimming pools would never be this clean if it wasn’t for this underwater wonder. Essentially an underwater vacuum cleaner, the Kreepy Krauly was invented in 1974 by hydraulics engineer Ferdinand Chauvier , who had relocated to South Africa from the Belgian Congo more than 20 years earlier.
Millions of pool owners are eternally grateful.
Mark Shuttleworth was the poster boy for successful innovators for years, until Elon Musk’s meteoric rise blew the lights out. Shuttleworth noticed that websites (like humans in the real world) needed some way of proving their identity, like a passport. While US companies navel-gazed at their home market, his little start-up, called Thawte, captured most of the European market. He sold to US digital certification giant Verisign for US$350 million in December 1999. After a trip to the International Space Station on board a Russian rocket (for US$20 million, becoming the world’s second space tourist), he has since devoted himself to building an open-source computer operating system called Ubuntu. Used by Google, among others, it’s the only viable alternative to Windows and Apple. And this all began in a garage in Cape Town.
Claiming these massive businesses as South African might be a bit cheeky, but they wouldn’t have existed without the initiative of locally born Elon Musk. After all, Pretoria Boys’ High is better known for producing rugby players (such as Springbok legend John Smit) and not the next Steve Jobs.
Space Exploration (SpaceX) is the only working link between planet Earth and the International Space Station. In January, SpaceX almost succeeded in landing its launch Falcon 9 rocket on a robotic barge in the middle of the ocean, before it suffered a rapid unscheduled disassembly (space industry slang for a rocket exploding).
Musk’s other company, Tesla, has reinvented the motor industry with its slick, stylish, electric sports cars, while his first big success, PayPal (which he sold to eBay), enabled e-commerce through micropayments. Musk’s next ambitious project is to get to Mars, about which he jokes, “I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
Speaking of space, the South African invention that has travelled the furthest from home is Pratley Putty, which went all the way to the moon. Developed in Krugersdorp by George Pratley, it was used to glue parts of the Eagle landing craft from the Apollo 11 mission. Yes, the one where Neil Armstrong said those immortal lines as he set foot on the moon. It was a giant leap for South African technology. Pratley, an engineer, was trying to find a way to hold components in an electrical box when he invented the eponymous glue. Talk about global impact.
Cricket is not really a sport made for television. A strange, seemingly lethargic hangover from the gentlemanly era, it is still a remarkable sport of skill and talent. Most non-cricket players can be grateful to one Henri Johnson for that extra little excitement that comes from watching the TV game and being able to ascertain just how fast a ball is being bowled.
Tennis, which is likewise dull except quicker, is also in his debt. Johnson, from Somerset West, invented a device called the SpeedBall (commonly known as the speed gun), which measures, very accurately, the angles, speeds and trajectories of cricket and tennis balls. Endless replays of falling wickets have followed.
I bet you didn’t know that Amazon’s market-leading cloud services were built in Cape Town?
Amazon emerged as a provider of those new-fangled cloud computing services in the mid-2000s, which quickly evolved into a computing platform in its own right. Central to Amazon Web Services (AWS) is software called Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which was mostly developed in Cape Town, led by University of Cape Town-educated Chris Pinkham.
He worked with Pretoria-born Willem van Biljon, whose other great success is Postillion – payment software used throughout the world, which made his company, Mosaic, one of the top three payment processing vendors in the world, before being bought in 2004.
AWS now provides services to, among others, Nasa, Netflix, the Obama Campaign, Pinterest and the CIA.
Toby Shapshak is editor and publisher of stuff.co.za. His TED talk on innovation in Africa has had more than 1.3 million views (on.ted.com/rkNC). Follow him on Twitter @shapshak.
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