Great South African inventions

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.

Celmax collars

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”.

Celmax collar
Celmax collar

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.

Lodox Xmplar-dr Digital X-Ray System
Lodox Xmplar-dr Digital X-Ray System

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.

SKA dense_aperture_array_overview
SKA dense_aperture_array_overview

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.

Thin solar cells
Thin solar cells

Cybertracker

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.

Cybertracker
Cybertracker

The Tellurometer

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).

Tellurometer
Tellurometer

Dolosse

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.

Dolosse
Dolosse

Pool cleaners

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.

More about pool cleaners here

Kreepy Krauly
Kreepy Krauly

Pratley Putty

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.

Pratley Putty
Pratley Putty

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.

Speed gun
Speed gun (Image source: The Sable Accelerator)

Q20 lubricant

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.

Q20
Q20

“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.

The Lightie
The Lightie

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.

RoboBEAST in action
RoboBEAST in action

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.

Vodago prepaid voucher
Vodago prepaid voucher

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.

Digital laser
Digital laser

Do you know of any other cool SA inventions?  Let us know in the comments below.

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Great South African inventions