What will historians say in a hundred years from now?

December 5th, 2014, Published in Articles: Energize

 

A friend of mine is in the advanced stages of recording a history of electrical engineering in South Africa from 1860 – 1960. The work is expected to be published in a hard-cover book format during 2015 and will make interesting reading for all electrical engineers and maybe a section of the general public with a general interest in things historical.

Max Clarke

Max Clarke

Now if you think the dates are a mistake and that it – electricity – came to South Africa in the form of street lights in Kimberley in 1882, think again. We tend to forget that electricity’s earliest significant use was for telegraphy – anyone remember Morse Code? Yes, in South Africa dot-dash messages were sent from Cape Town to Simon’s Town via a pair of wires draped on wooden poles alongside the road way back in the beginning, and in due course this was followed by the development of a significant network of telegraph lines throughout many parts of the Cape Colony long before street lights came into being.

Our somewhat tragic “happenings” in the power field in the recent past has prompted me to reflect on how history will view our local developments in electrical engineering when historians put together the story of the second century,1960 – 2060. While it is impossible to foresee what technological advances will be achieved in the next 45 years we can at least reflect on the past 54 years and perhaps brace ourselves for what is yet to come – and the role South African engineers will play on the world stage.

Will any of them, for example, equal the achievements of Pretoria-born Hendrik van der Bijl (later of Eskom and Iscor fame) who in the second half of that first 100 years laid the foundation for modern communications in all its forms? Did you know that it was he who, while working in a laboratory in the USA, became the first person in the world to fully understand the physics of the emission of electrons from a metal plate, and from that proceeded to write the book which became the definitive reference for valve design? Vacuum tubes, or valves, formed the basis of all telegraphic amplification and radio signals and even though transistors have hugely altered the face of radio and telecommunications since their invention in 1947, still play an important role in a number of fields.

And will there be another Trevor Wadley? It was he who turned land surveying on its head with the development of the Tellurometer about 60 years ago. Not only did his invention make land surveying easier, cheaper and more accurate around the globe, it laid the foundation for Dick Holsher to develop another first, an infra-red distance measuring device, with similar results. The fact that GPS’s have taken over much of these functions doesn’t detract from the significant role of the original invention.

Thinking about the second 100 years, one wonders if it will be Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth or some as yet unnamed South African who will put down the markers? Will their discoveries, inventions or visions have similar effects on the world stage? We can only speculate.

But what we can say is that when historians look at the development of our telecommunication systems compared with those early Morse-based systems they might be quite flattering in their comments. After all, we built a mobile phone network in a relative short space of time – even if we were a bit behind Northern Hemisphere countries – and have managed to grow the subscriber base to almost unbelievable levels in a short space of time.

Or will historians focus on the confusion, and resulting complaints, that beset our regulatory system and its vacillations and indecisions on “bandwidth” and a host or related topics that are strangling our efforts to try to embrace the next stage of this modern development?

How will they judge the SKA project – technological masterpiece or white elephant?

Reverting to what initially prompted my thoughts, I wonder how they will view some of the relatively “new” developments in the power field. Will they ask how it was possible for intelligent people to ignore the advice of other intelligent people when the country needed to expand its power-generation facilities just before the turn of the 21st century?

What will they make of the then President apologising to the nation for the Government not heeding this advice and effectively putting national development programmes into leg-irons? Will they see the longer term results as a small glitch on our development (our currency only buys about one-third of what it did 20 years ago), or industrial chaos, commercial self-mutilation and/or ultimately the mother of all economic recessions?

How will they rate Eskom under Ian McRae compared with Hendrik van der Bijl? Will they say that McRae’s talents to get buy-in to his vision for the far-reaching “electricity for all” plan to help rectify the ills of the past, from an almost impossibly wide spectrum of leaders and communities, was just as important as Van der Bijl’s vision for cheap and abundant supplies of electricity to build the nation’s industrial capabilities and economic strength ?

Or will they say that the headlong rush to electrify every habitable structure arguably sowed the seeds of entitlement and effectively created a gargantuan illicit “connection” programme that saw a quarter or more of the electricity generated in the country disappearing down a bottomless pit labelled “unaccounted for”? And what will they think of the knock-on effect of turning parts of the country into “no-go” areas for utility staff ?

Will they applaud our “free basic electricity” policies and the use of electricity as a social engineering tool, or will they mock us for our double standards because we piously spout “the user pays” principle as a cornerstone of infrastructure funding when it is expedient to do so?

I wonder what they will make of our efforts to “rationalise” the nation-wide electricity distribution industry to solve some nebulous so-called “problems”? Will they believe it possible for intelligent people to set in motion a series of actions to address this issue in 1996 and then after 15 years of talking, and “mega bucks” of expenditure, abandon the whole project? Coincidentally, leaving the “problems” while we continue selling electricity through a multiplicity of tariffs with barely a ripple on the surface of the pond as we’ve done for more than 100 years! Will they say that had those intelligent people applied what is now patently wasted expenditure directly to improving the networks, many of the network problems that are now manifesting themselves, and require an estimated R60-billion to solve, would not have existed?

What do you think the historians will say when they try to understand our power station build programmes, after they eventually started? Will they think that the same nation that built mega stadiums and other infrastructure on time to host the 2010 soccer world cup couldn’t get its act together to build and commission power stations to any realistic time or cost schedule? Will they say that maintenance and institutional memory took a back seat in many utilities as the crescendo of “out with the old, in with the new” took hold at the expense of quality of supply and everyday economics?

One can’t help wondering about these and the many other things that will be scrutinised and written about. It’s just a pity many of us won’t be around to read how far off the mark our guesses were!

Max Clarke

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