David Limebeer and Barry Dwolatzky

School of Electrical & Information Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand


The University of the Witwatersrand celebrates its centenary in 2022. As part of this celebration, we recall some of the contributions made by South African engineers to the advancement of their chosen field.

Space restrictions make it impossible to recognise the contributions made by many brilliant South African engineers that have emerged over the last hundred years.

The selection we have made is inevitably coloured by our personal knowledge, experience and interests, but also our ignorance.
We offer no ordering, or prioritisation, as to whom we think might have contributed most. On topics such as this one is unlikely to find consensus.

This leads us to another issue: what is engineering, and who should be categorised as an engineer?

In recent times a lot of research and development work is undertaken by large teams, with members drawn from a multiplicity of different disciplines. Examples are the ITER nuclear reactor and the Large Hadron Collider whose missions are to investigate, respectively, the viability of fusion power generation and the frontiers of particle physics. Are these physics projects? The answer is surely ‘yes’. Are these projects undertaken predominantly by physicists? The answer is ‘no’. Both projects involve mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists, and engineers of many varieties.

To further muddy the waters, one might ask the question: what type of engineer is so and so?

As engineering educators, we find a diversity of opinions on this subject too. At one end of the spectrum, one finds institutions that offer courses that are arguably over-specialised such as engineering acoustics. After attending such a course, we suppose that one becomes an acoustics engineer. Towards the other end of the spectrum Cambridge and Oxford, for example, offer courses in engineering science, which are broadly based, and focus on the fundamentals of mathematics, physics and chemistry.

One also finds courses such as global engineering design that could encapsulate almost anything.

In discussing the South African engineers that we believe have made outstanding contributions, the reader will notice that some start out as engineers of one variety and then metamorphose into what one could categorise as mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, medical doctors and so on.

These developmental changes can occur in the opposite direction too, where mathematicians, physicists and chemists become engineers.

We believe that this adaptability of thinking is to be lauded, and for that reason we believe that a broad-based education that focusses on the fundamentals is the correct way to foster the engineers of the future. While it is surely right to recognise and celebrate our past achievements, it is arguably even more important to think about the things that are likely to facilitate the production of future generations of outstanding engineers.

We have grouped our selected outstanding engineering contributors into seven topic areas. In each case we provide an introductory overview, with person-specific contributions provided as web-based added matter.