Peter Ball

The year of 1812 is mainly remembered for Napoleon Bonaparte’s ruinous retreat from Moscow, when his “Grande Armee” was forced to evacuate the city or face starvation with the Russian winter impending. It was the beginning of the end for “Boney” and his defeat would eventually lead him to abdicate as emperor of France in 1814. Napoleon’s failed “Russian Campaign” would be known as the “Patriotic War of 1812” by the Russians and seventy years later would be celebrated by the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” in Moscow.

Professor Lipmann Kessel MC, MBE, FRCS (1914-1986) was an eminent surgeon and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, who wrote several important works on orthopaedic surgery, but rather like another well-known doctor, Roger Bannister (1929-2018), Kessel is best remembered for what he did as a young man. In the case of Bannister it was breaking the four minute mile barrier (in 1954) and with Kessel it was his medical role during the famous Battle of Arnhem, in late September 1944.

There are not many South Africans who have been honoured by having a statue of themselves erected in London. Only two come readily to mind and they are Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela, whose statues stand proudly in Parliament Square, Westminster. However, there is a lesser known South African who has a statue which stands outside Bank Station; he is James Henry Greathead (1844-1896), the grandson of an 1820 Settler of the same name. So why is it that a boy from Grahamstown should be so honoured and what was his achievement?

I first met Lady Anne Barnard (1750- 1825) when she was in her mid forties. It was a brief encounter, in fact only a passage in the text of “The Table Mountain Book” by Jose Burman, that master storyteller of early South African travel. Lady Anne was reported to be the first European woman to climb to the top of Table Mountain (in July 1797) and I was resolved to find out more about her life and why a high born lady was living in Cape Town (Kaapsche Stad) at the end of the eighteenth century, during what became the first British Occupation (1795-1802).

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), London, has a monthly magazine entitled the “E & T” magazine, which has a regular column, written by Justin Pollard called the “Eccentric Engineer”. It is factual, informative and above all witty. Pollard is not an engineer but a historian with an inkling for science and technology. In his column he brings  personalities that were little known or have been forgotten, along with their inventions back to life.

If I undertook a street survey and asked passers-by how much they weighed or how tall they were, the answers I would get back would be dependent on what system of weight and measures a person was brought up on and was familiar with. Grandparents would most likely answer in imperial units (pounds, feet & inches), and their grandchildren would reply in metric units (kilograms and metres), the reason for this is that South Africa converted to the metric system in the early 1970’s.

The reason I say this is that the game of football means different things to different people. If I were an Australian, football (or footy) would mean Aussie Rules, to a New Zealander football would be Rugby football and to an American, football is a contact sport where the ball is handled rather than kicked more akin to rugby. Europeans, Africans, Asians and South Americans know football as a predominantly kicking game with the passing of the ball by use of the foot between players: i.e. football played to the rules of Association Football (a.k.a. Soccer).

'Meccano' was the brainchild of Frank Hornby (1863-1936) who developed and patented in 1901, a metal model construction kit for boys called “Mechanics Made Easy”, which was the precursor of “Meccano”. The name change came about in 1908, and is thought to have emanated from the expression “Make and know” as pronounced with a Scouse accent, as Hornby was a Liverpudlian and got his brainwave by watching the cranes loading ships at Liverpool Docks.

Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham (a British peer) is a fictional character in the popular television period drama, “Downton Abbey”, set one hundred years ago. His family seat is Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, where he lives with his wife Cora, the Countess Grantham and their three daughters, the Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil. He, being one of the landed gentry, generates his major income from tenant farmers farming on his Estate which he inherited from his father the 6th Earl.

The first thing I did when researching this piece of writing was to look at a modern physical map of South Africa and envision that the urban areas and the modern road network shown thereupon were on a thin film that could be peeled away. What remained on the under layer were the physical features such as the coastline, rivers, escarpments and mountain ranges. It was a clean canvas on which I could put settlements on, but before I could do this I had to determine a date in history.

In 1884, before Johannesburg ever existed and when herds of game still roamed free across the savannah, a young man left his home in the Eastern Cape in search of adventure in what was then the Eastern Transvaal (now known as Mpumalanga). His name was Percy Fitzpatrick (1862-1931) and he went hoping to find his fortune on the newly proclaimed goldfields.

In 2014 the monthly magazine “Civil Engineering” (published by the South African Institute of Civil Engineers) ran a series of articles entitled “A brief history of transport infrastructure in South Africa up to the end of the 20th century” (comprising ten chapters issued from January/February to November 2014), which gave an interesting account of the history of our roads, railways, harbours and airports. The author of the articles was Dr.

For those of us old enough to remember, there was a tune called the “Lift Girl’s Lament” by the British singer songwriter Jeremy Taylor (he who was banished from South Africa for deriding Apartheid), which had the immortal line “I might go a thousand feet a day but I’m not going to go that far”; the song told the tale of a lift operator in a downtown Johannesburg department store in the 1960’s.

 

We South Africans live in a polyglot society, which under our Constitution, has 11 official languages that “must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”. Mother tongues range from Afrikaans to IsiZulu, from isiXhosa to Setswana, however to stop us being a modern Tower of Babel we largely use one language to communicate between each other and that is English. In doing so we are reflecting a world wide trend. In today’s world English has become the “Lingua Franca” replacing French as the language of diplomacy and German in the field of science.

Should one drive out of Johannesburg eastwards along the N12 highway, a famous landmark is passed at the Snake Road exit, known as Benoni’s mountain or more accurately the Kleinfontein Mine Dump. The Dump has been standing tall (92 metres) for over 90 years but will soon only be a memory as it is being reclaimed for the estimated 3 ½ tons of gold that it contains. For many it is an eyesore and good riddance, but others will be sad to see it go.

 

Ever since the Millennium the buzzword has been “Globalisation”, which paradoxically was given prominence by the anti-globalisation movement; those people who saw the threat of the multinational companies creating a new world order. By definition Globalisation is “the process enabling financial and investment markets to operate internationally, largely as a result of deregulation and improved communications” (Collins). The word came into everyday speech in the 1990’s having been coined first in the 1960’s by economists.

An article published in the May 2015 “Popular Mechanics” magazine (RSA edition), was entitled “SUPERTRAINS coming down the line” in which it was stated “Let’s get one thing straight: we don’t send much freight via railway because the country’s extensive rail network is too narrow”. Yes it is true that South African wagons run on a narrow gauge track (1065mm) - narrow by definition being a gauge less than the standard gauge of 1435mm (4’-8½”).

Rust by definition is a reddish brown coating formed on a ferrous metal (i.e. iron or steel) by oxidation, especially in the presence of moisture, which gradually corrodes the metal. Rust would seem to be Nature’s way of restoring iron and steel back to the state of the iron ore found in the earth’s crust. This process could well be called metallurgy in reverse.

The late Fred Dibnah, although unknown to most South Africans, was a household name in Britain. He was a true English eccentric who had a passion for all sorts of machinery powered by steam and he spent much of his life studying their construction and history.

He was a man born out of his time, as by the time he started work in the 1950’s, steam power in industry was being superseded by newer technology in the form of electric powered machines.

Pages

Subscribe to Peter Ball