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 an internationally recognised leading institution of higher learning and research. Wits has, and continues to, produce 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.
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.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.
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.
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. 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.
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.