History of the school

1922 - View of the Wits Campus. School of Electrical Engineering on the far right.

 

A history of Electrical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg from its early origins to 2009

 

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, or Wits as it is affectionately known, is a major residential university situated in Johannesburg.  In the years and decades following  its humble origins, the University would go on to become a leading institution of higher learning and research, producing alumni of global eminence in many fields, including Nobel Laureates, industrialists, literary luminaries and others.  Today, Wits alumni are to be found in leadership positions at many of the world’s great universities, medical establishments, companies and other institutions.

Wits’ origins, like those of its home city, are intimately associated with gold mining.  In fact, Wits’ early origins lie further south in the diamond mining town of Kimberly, where in August 1896, the South African School of Mines opened its doors to admit students who had already received two years of theoretical instruction from other institutions, primarily, the South African College. It was initially envisaged that students would spend their third year at the School and then move to Johannesburg for their final year in order to gain experience on the Rand gold mines.  As it turned out, political tensions and other considerations at the time rendered this arrangement problematic, and the period of practical work on the Rand gold mines was reduced.

By the early 1900’s, with a substantial change in the political landscape , and the massive economic impetus of the Rand gold mines, the desire to consolidate the training of mining engineers within a single institution resulted in the formation of the Transvaal Technical Institute in Johannesburg.  In 1904, the Institute, which replaced the South African School of Mines, began teaching with one Senior Professor and five Assistant Professors, including J. H. Dobson, who was appointed in Mathematics and Electrotechnics. The other disciplines were Engineering, Geology, Mining and Metallurgy, and Chemistry and Physics.  Soon, evening classes were instituted in other Rand towns as well as Pretoria. The institute awarded diplomas, but there was a desire in some quarters to achieve full university status in order to award degrees.

In 1906, with the aim of ultimately achieving full university status, the Institute changed its name to the Transvaal University College.   Jan Smuts, as minister of education, for reasons that are obscure, vigorously opposed the creation of a university in Johannesburg at that time.  He arranged to keep mining and technology in Johannesburg, but transferred the liberal arts and pure sciences to Pretoria.  In 1910, the title Transvaal University College was applied exclusively to the Pretoria-based component of the College, while the Johannesburg centre was re-named the   South African School of Mines and Technology. 

Prior to World War I, the South African School of Mines and Technology began to increase in size.  Professor W. Buchanan served as the Professor of Electrotechnics.  The School saw expansion not only in numbers but also in programmes, and by 1922 it had achieved that hitherto elusive goal – full university status as the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Professor Heather had, since 1914, been Professor of Electrotechnics, and he continued in this position after the formation of Wits, serving under Professor Orr who was in charge of all branches of engineering. In 1926, Professor Oswald Randall was appointed to the chair of Electrical Engineering.  This coincided with the occupation of the first engineering building at the new Milner Park campus. At around this time, the government put in place policies to encourage diversification and local manufacturing in the economy.  This had a major effect on the demand for engineers, including electrical engineers, who now had the prospect of finding employment in a range of industries outside of mining.

During the 1930’s, electrical engineering, which had previously been part of mechanical engineering, became an independent branch of engineering at the university and it became possible to attain the degree BSc(Eng) in Electrical Engineering.

Despite the great depression, the years after 1933 were characterised by a period of strong economic growth in South Africa.  This, combined with the abandonment of the gold standard, which had the effect of increasing the gold price, resulted in a surge in demand for engineering activities in South Africa.

As early as 1930, the possibility of establishing a lightning research laboratory was proposed, and later, Bernard Price, who was general manager and chief engineer of the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company, took steps towards the creation of a geophysical research institute.  Price not only championed this endeavour, but also made a personal contribution towards its creation which was co-funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

In 1937, Wits established the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research which was charged with conducting research into, inter alia, seismology, lightning, terrestrial magnetism, meteorology and radio communications.  While this institute was separate from the Electrical Engineering department at Wits, many of the research activities were closely allied with Electrical Engineering.  In fact, it was intended that the work of the institute would not only be to conduct pure research, but also to serve the electrical and mining industries.

Basil Schonland, a physicist, became the Carnegie-Price Professor of Geophysics at Wits and director of the new institute.  Schonland’s work resulted in the institute becoming internationally renowned in the study of lightning, an area of active research within Electrical Engineering at Wits to this day.  

In 1939, Smuts drafted Schonland in to work on the then highly classified technology of radar. The institute committed itself entirely to war work and became the headquarters for what became known as the Special Signals Services which was tasked with preparing to train people in the use of British radar. Britain shared secret information on radar technology with its Dominions, and in South Africa’s case, this transfer of information occurred primarily through Schonland being briefed directly by Dr Ernest Marsden. Ever the scientist, Schonland, rather than serve purely in a training capacity, set up a research and development team, and based on the information he received from Britain, the team developed a South African version of radar within a few months using components scavenged from radio shops. The South African radar’s functionality was first demonstrated in mid December 1939.

With development work on the South African prototype radar complete, the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research became a manufacturing plant for these radar units, and the systems were deployed to great effect along the South African coast and abroad to augment the Royal Air Force defences.  In this way, the institute and Wits made an important contribution to the war effort through the application of electrical engineering.

The post war years saw the opening up of major gold fields in South Africa, and the demand for engineers of various types grew massively.  Also, the character of the required engineering training shifted from operational and maintenance skills to design and development.  Wits met these requirements admirably and rapidly established a reputation for excellence. 

The advances in electronics during World War II highlighted the distinction between so called Light and Heavy Current engineering. Randall, who was a Heavy Current specialist, but who recognised the rapidly evolving importance of electronics,  advocated that two separate electrical engineering departments be set up to cater for this division.  Professor G. R. Bozzoli (Boz), who, while still a junior staff member in Electrical Engineering at Wits, had been part of Schonland’s radar team, succeeded Randall to the chair.  Bozzoli, who’s main interest was in acoustics, was not in favour of having two departments. He was a firm believer in providing electrical engineers with a more general education rather than early specialisation, and this philosophy remains a cornerstone of the Wits Electrical Engineering degree to this day.

Bozzoli did, however, recognise that the two disciplines required senior staff with different backgrounds, and in 1957, he oversaw the creation of a second chair in Heavy Current. The first incumbent of this new chair was Professor William (Bill) Cormack.  Bozzoli remained head of department, and continued to occupy the original chair which was named the De Beers chair in Electrical Engineering in recognition of its sponsor.  Bozzoli’s greatest strengths were in administration and teaching.  He was able to deliver a wide range of courses, and was recognised for his humanity, vision, and his promotion of others.

When Bozzoli became Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University, Cormack succeeded him as Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Professor Hu E. Hanrahan became the incumbent of the Chair of Electronics as light current became known, and later the Chair of Communications Engineering, with Professor Mike G. Rodd taking over in Electronics.  Professor Jan P. Reynders succeeded Cormack as the incumbent of the Chair, and also served a period as Head of Department as did Professors Rodd and Hanrahan.  Other chairs had also been introduced, such as Control Engineering. Professor Charles F. Landy became Head of Department and was succeeded on his retirement by Professor Ian R. Jandrell who is the current Head and the CBi-electric Professor of Lightning.  Jandrell has research interests in high voltage and a passion for lightning research, thus continuing a tradition started all those years ago with Basil Schonland.

Electrical Engineering at Wits has produced numerous luminaries. A few examples should suffice to illustrate the extent of Wits’ prestige. Louis Jacobson, who graduated in 1931, founded Alpha Harris which was later incorporated into First Electric Company of South Africa. Jacobson’s companies were responsible for the design and manufacture of a wide range of heavy electrical machinery. He later joined with Carl Fuchs to start F.W.J. Electrical Industries which became legendary. Trevor L. Wadley, widely regarded as one of the world’s truly gifted electronic engineers, was part of the Special Signals Service radar team during the war. A graduate of Howard College (now the University of KwaZulu- Natal), he later earned a DSc at Wits for a thesis entitled ‘Heterodyne techniques in specialised radio instrumentation’ in which he included his world-renowned work on radio, ionospheric radio propagation, and most famously, the Tellurometer. Another truly eminent person to graduate from Electrical Engineering at Wits was Tingye Li, who subsequently worked at AT&T and is internationally recognised as one of the giants in the development of lasers and optical communication.

Examples of Wits Electrical Engineering luminaries who have achieved eminence in academia both past and active include: Reuven Kitai, Professor of Electrical Engineering at McMaster University; David Mayne, Professor of Control Engineering at Imperial College; Mickey Milner, Professor of Bio-Engineering at the University of Toronto; Igor Aleksander , Gabor Chair of Electrical Engineering at Imperial College; David Limebeer, Head of  Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College; Berthold Horn, Professor in the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; and Nigel Middleton, a Senior Vice-President of the Colorado School of Mines.

With restructuring, the former Department of Electrical Engineering is now known as the School of Electrical and Information Engineering.  With Information Engineering becoming such a dominant part of Electrical Engineering activity, students in Electrical Engineering can choose their course concentration in their final year such that they graduate with an endorsement indicating that they have chosen the Information Engineering option.

The Wits Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering, including the Information Engineering option, enjoys full recognition in terms of the Washington Accord, and is thus recognised internationally by all signatory countries.  Graduates of the School are sought after by industry both locally and abroad, and the School’s graduates are to be found in Industry and Academia throughout the world. 

With the turn of the millennium, the School reviewed the structure of its undergraduate programmes to meet contemporary needs and introduced the Bachelor of Engineering Science degree to compliment the professional degrees. Prof David M. Rubin, a Specialist Medical Practitioner with a Biomedical Engineering qualification joined the staff and developed the 3-year Bachelor of Engineering Science Degree in Biomedical Engineering, which is designed to be followed by one of a number of programmes including Electrical Engineering and Medicine. The first students began studying biomedical engineering in 2003.

The School currently has five full Professors, one of whom, Prof Beatrys M. Lacquet, is  Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, five Associate Professors, and one Adjunct Professor in addition to Senior, Junior, Associate and Sessional lecturers, as well as a number of Honorary staff members.  Also, Professors Reynders and Hanrahan remain active in the School as Emeritus Professors.  The School has enjoyed strong support from industry including Chairs, Fellowships and Laboratories funded by the Carl and Emily Fuchs Foundation (Professor M.A. ‘Anton’ van Wyk), CBi-electric,  Siemens, Actom (formally Alstom SA), Schneider Electric (Professor Willie A. Cronje), Eskom, Goldfields Limited, Telkom, IBM, Nokia-Siemens, and Vodacom.

The School has extensive undergraduate and postgraduate laboratory facilities, as well as a specialist Machines laboratory and a High Voltage laboratory.  The activities of the School are supported by a dedicated Electronics Workshop and Machine Shop.

Most of the research within the School falls into one of the major research laboratories, viz. Machines and Drives, Electronics, High Voltage, Lightning and EMC, Telecommunications, Information Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Computational Electromagnetics, and Systems and Control.  The School is also a major partner in the new Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, with the Head of Information Engineering, Professor Barry Dwolatzky serving as the Centre’s current director. In addition, Bioinformatics has been added as one of the competencies. More recently, a substantial research initiative has been developed in renewable energy, with particular emphasis on wind, solar and smart grids. These research thrusts produce Masters and PhD graduates. The School has also incubated two high-tech companies and members of the staff are active both in academic research and industrial consulting.

Every year, the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering serve as hosts for the Bernard Price Memorial Lecture at Wits, delivered by an eminent personality in electrical engineering or a related discipline.  This decades-long tradition in honour of Bernard Price, is a joint initiative of Wits and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers. 

A recent grant has facilitated the extension of the Chamber of Mines Building, which houses the School’s offices and some of its laboratories. By 2010, this will substantially increase the space available to the School.

 

The main sources of information in this article for the pre-1960 history of Wits and Electrical Engineering, were Bruce K. Murray’s books, Wits: The Early Years, and Wits: The ‘Ópen’ Years, both by Witwatersrand University Press.

 

Laboratory partners in the final year Electrical Engineering project,1952. Left: "Bobby" van der Raay, who later joined the university of Birmingham to work on their synchrotron. Right: Tingye Li Electrical Engineering students on a visit to a Rand gold mine, circa 1951. Alan Meyer (fourth from left) retired from industry and is currently an honorary staff member of the School of Electrical and Information Engineering. Tingye Li is third from right.