South Africa can be proud of many innovative inventions, often inspired by necessity rather than the desire to become rich through the product.
In a recent presentation at South by South West (SXSW), Stuff Magazine editor Toby Shapshak said that Africa produces the purest form of innovation – innovation out of necessity.
Some of the remarkable inventions in Africa, Shapshak told SXSW delegates, revolve around the mobile phone.
These inventions include the mobile payment system M-Pesa, the dairy assistance service iCow, and pay-as-you-go services.
Shapshak’s full TED presentation, titled “You don’t need an app for that”, can be viewed below.
Great South African inventions and inventors
There are many South Africans who drove innovation forward and provided the world with new products or services.
Some of the well-known South African IT innovators include Mark Shuttleworth (Thawte and Canonical), and Elon Musk (Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX).
Musk’s SpaceX, for example, was the first privately developed and owned spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
Doctor Chris Barnard’s first heart transplant in 1967 and Sasol’s oil-from-coal refinery are well known, but here are some of the lesser known inventions which came from South Africans.
Philip Lotter, a farmer from Caledon, invented a collar system to protect his animals against theft and predators.
Stellenbosch-based Etse Electronics took Lotter’s idea and developed a commercially viable product. The initial system used a basic radio network, but was later moved to a cellular system.
The Celmax collar, which contains a cellular device and SIM card, is worn by one of the animals in the herd (like sheep or cattle). When the herd starts acting abnormally, the farmer is alerted through a ‘mobile call’, allowing him to act.
The latest system uses an acceleration sensor with a complicated algorithm to accurately establish the animal’s movements.
There are currently around 2,000 Celmax collar systems in operation, and the impact on protecting against livestock theft and predators is described as “amazing”.
Full-body X-ray scanner
The South African company Lodox Systems produces a unique full-body X-ray scanner – the only one of its kind currently on the market.
The Xmplar-dr X-ray system provides full-body X-ray images in just 13 seconds, with minimal radiation dose (0.12mGy), and with exceptional image quality.
The “Lodox Critical Imaging Technology” was first developed for use on the diamond mines of South Africa to prevent the smuggling and theft of diamonds by mineworkers.
Quiet cellular antenna technology by Vodacom
Two Vodacom employees, Gordon Mayhew-Ridgers and Paul van Jaarsveld, invented cellular antenna technology which reduces “noisy” emissions from cellular base stations in the area.
This invention was needed to offer mobile services in the Karoo without compromising the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) research.
Mayhew-Ridgers and van Jaarsveld developed an antenna based on phased-array principles, providing omnidirectional coverage but also blocking the RF transmissions along a single direction (that would correspond with the bearing of the SKA core site).
The antenna has been tested in the Karoo and performs extremely well. Trialling measurements have shown that the RF signal levels at the proposed SKA core site can be reduced significantly, while at the same time, much of the original GSM coverage can be retained.
Cheaper solar power by the University of Johannesburg
An innovation in solar power which uses a micro-thin metallic film by Professor Vivian Alberts at the University of Johannesburg, has made solar electricity five times less expensive than solar photovoltaic cells.
Vivian Alberts’ solar panels consist of a five microns thick layer of a unique metal alloy that converts light into energy more affordably than previous options. The photo-responsive alloy can operate on most flexible surfaces.
In February 2014 a semi-commercial plant for the production of Albert’s thin-film solar module technology was opened in Stellenbosch.
CyberTracker is used to track animals, birds, insects and other creatures by using a satellite navigational system. This technology was developed by physicist Louis Liebenberg and computer scientist Lindsay Steventon in 1996.
“Some of the best traditional trackers in Africa cannot read or write. To overcome this problem, the CyberTracker was developed with an icon-based user interface that enabled expert non-literate trackers to record complex geo-referenced observations on animal behaviour,” Liebenberg explained.
The Tellurometer, the first successful microwave electronic distance measurement equipment, was invented by Dr. Trevor Lloyd Wadley from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
According to NOAA, the Tellurometer was the result of the “search for an instrument that was lightweight and portable, required a small amount of power, and was accurate over several miles”.
This invention revolutionized map making because it could accurately measure long distances (up to 50km).
Anybody who has visited harbours around the world would have seen large concrete blocks with a complex geometric shape, used to protect hardbour walls.
These large concrete blocks, known as dolosse (plural) or a dolos (singular), were invented by South African Eric Mowbray Merrifield in 1963, and are used around the world to protect harbour walls from the erosive force of ocean waves.
John Raubenheimer invented the Pool Bug Automatic Pool Cleaner in the late 1960s, shortly before the now famous Kreepy Krauly made its debut.
The Kreepy Krauly is an automated swimming pool cleaner keeps your pool clean with minimal work. South Africa’s Ferdinand Chauvier is credited with the invention of the Kreepy Krauly swimming pool vacuum cleaner in 1974.
Other local pool cleaning systems include Helga Schmeider’s The Pool Ranger, and the Baracuda MARS Pool Cleaner.
The world famous Pratley Putty was invented by George Pratley, a South African engineer who developed innovative products for the mining sector.
Pratley invented his famous putty in the sixties while looking for glue that would hold components in an electrical box.
Speed gun and other inventions
South African engineer Henri Johnson is credited with the invention of the speed gun and other technologies used to measure the speed and direction of sports balls.
The South African-made speed gun was formally released at The Oval during the 1999 World Cup.
The Q20 multi-purpose lubricant was invented in South Africa in 1950, and is well known for its lubrication, rust prevention, protection of industrial and household goods, and moisture displacement.
“The Lightie” Solar Bottle Light
South African inventor Michael Suttner developed “The Lightie” solar bottle light, offering a low cost, solar powered light.
“The Lightie” is built into a durable, ruggedized acrylic housing and uses Lithium battery technology. It offers 40 hours of light when charged from 8 hours of sunlight.
RoboBEAST and Robohands
House4hack has developed the RoboBEAST, a 3D printer for ordinary, non-technical people that will let them easily print Robohands to any scale.
The Robohand project was founded by Richard van As, who said he was inspired to use 3D printing technology to make hands when an accident in 2011 cost him half the fingers on his primary hand.
The RoboBEAST software only requires a user to select what type of hand they are making, and input a single measurement. From there, the size of each of the components is derived using the human hand’s natural proportions, and printed with plastic.
Vodacom’s prepaid airtime on an Intelligent Network platform
In November 1996, Vodacom was the first network in the world to introduce prepaid airtime on an Intelligent Network platform, which made it possible to debit customers’ accounts while they were speaking.
In 1998 Vodacom won a Global Mobile Award for the “Best GSM Service” for its VodaGo prepay system.
World’s first digital laser
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced the development of the world’s first digital laser in September 2013.
The innovation is expected to spur numerous applications to improve the communication and health sectors, said Professor Andrew Forbes of the CSIR National Laser Centre.
The experimental work in the laser project was done by doctoral candidate and CSIR researcher Sandile Nqcobo.
Do you know of any other cool SA inventions? Let us know in the comments below.