Review: John Yeld
WHAT A GREAT IDEA! Awesome South African inventions, by Mike Bruton (Jacana)
ALTHOUGH they probably won’t remember his name, many South Africans will claim to know that it was a local harbour engineer from East London who came up with the brilliant idea of dolosse – those huge weirdly-shaped concrete blocks that lock together to form an effective, energy-dissipating, sea-walls that protect ships and prevent erosion.
They may also know that the design was never patented, and that the engineer, whose name was Eric Merrifield, never made any money from his invention.
But what they almost certainly don’t know is that it was Merrifield’s draughtsman, one Aubrey Kruger, who on an instruction from his boss actually designed the structures (dolos is Afrikaans for a sheep or ox knuckle-bone, which his design somewhat resembles) and who made a prototype using three broomsticks.
And that while Merrifield received wide recognition and acclaim for the invention, the real hero was Kruger who went unheralded and (also) financially unrewarded.
It is this sort of fascinating detail that author Mike Bruton provides for a myriad of South African inventions that include well-known products that have become household names in this country, like Pratley Putty, Bell trucks, Kreepy Krawly, CAT Scanner, Bentley Belt, Oil of Olay and Computicket.
But to imply that this 264-page book is merely a compendium of interesting snippets and details about such innovative products, or “inventions”, is to do Bruton a serious disservice. While he does provide an enormous amount of fascinating information and detail, all with at least some South African connection, he roots his book within the broader framework of human development and endeavour, and of global technological “uptake” or innovation that is achieved by giving practical effect to creative ideas through entrepreneurship.
Inventions are really just one aspect of innovation, he explains.
So Bruton’s fascinating account stretches over literally millions of years, starting with the invention of the controlled use of fire, the earliest evidence of which was found on a farm near Sterkfontein, near Johannesburg, and dates back as far as 1,8-to-2 million years. It reaches through the development of stone tools and the first artwork all the way to the 21st century where, arguably, most inventions are now in the form of “invisible” services related to the computer and IT industries and the digital economy.
Striding through his richly illustrated pages are such brilliant minds as early 19th century astronomer and polymath Sir John Herschel, Nobel prize-winning chemist Sir Aaron Klug, Trevor Wadley, who is described as “South Africa’s own Thomas Edison” and whose inventions included the all-wave radio receiver and – most famously – the Radio Tellurometer, and Mark Shuttleworth with his Thawte internet certification authority.
Bruton examines scores of products that helped define a uniquely South African lifestyle in the 19th and 20th centuries, like Mrs Balls Chutney, rooibos tea, Bunny Chow, Koo Chakalaka, platanna (toad) pregnancy tests and aloe plant-based products, and inventions that are now helping shape life in the 21st century.
These include locally developed computer games, several aspects of the massive Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project now under construction in the Great Karoo, SunSat microsatellites and a Durban company’s Water from Air product.
Numerous wonderfully innovative and fascinating inventions that feature in the book include Ludwig Marishane’s DryBath, Mulalo Doyoyo’s Cenocell cementless concrete, Jason Drew’s AgriProtein Fly Farm, Louis Liebenberg’s CyberTracker, and – admittedly more indirectly South African – Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, SpaceX rockets and Tesla electric cars.
Because of its vast scope, it must have been something of a nightmare to fact-check this book, and I did pick up a couple of small queries during my initial quick read (“quick” only because there’s a huge amount to take in and I certainly intend to re-visit the book repeatedly at my leisure).
So, for example, Bruton refers to the ancient Kingdoms of Mapungubwe in Limpopo province and Great Zimbabwe as among a number of advanced empires “flourishing before and during the Dark Ages in Western Europe”.
While the phrase Dark Ages is indeed sometimes used as a synonym for the whole of the Middle Ages, it’s more usually associated with the Early Middle Ages period from about 500AD to 1 000AD, slightly before these two southern African kingdoms flourished, although Bruton is quite correct in respect of Africa’s other great early trading empires that he cites such as Mali (Timbuktu) and Ghana.
But really, that is just a quibble about a book that is quite breath-taking in its scope and detail, and remarkably up to date. It will hold adults’ attention for hours – “Wow, I didn’t know that/Isn’t that amazing?” – and provide fascinating material for older children and teenagers.
I can highly recommended it, and especially for those who may feel the need for reinforcement in wanting to feel good about South Africa in these… well, interesting times. – firstname.lastname@example.org