What A Great Idea! by Mike Bruton is a stunning, full-colour book that documents South Africans’ amazing inventions and innovations.

Today’s extract is about Basil Schonland.

Schonland was a South African giant of physics.

He was a star pupil at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, where he was described as a “rocket-propelled, guided, educational missile”.

He achieved first-class maths honours in 1915 at Rhodes University and then, still only 18 years old, he went to Caius College in Cambridge.

When World War 1 came into full swing, Schonland was recruited into the army. He served in the signals section of the Royal Engineers and was soon at the front in France repairing broken field telephones. By the end of the war, he had achieved the rank of major – at the age of 21!

At the time, UK’s temple of experimental physics was the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, whose high priest was the taciturn New Zealander Lord Ernest Rutherford. Within a year of Schonland joining Rutherford, the team created the first man-made nuclear reactor. Although Schonland was the most junior member of the team, he was part of one of the most momentous events in science.

He then took a post in the physics department at the University of Cape Town, where he spent 14 years.

In 1938, Schonland was appointed director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research at Wits University, where he continued his research on lightning and initiated work on earthquakes.

World War 2 disrupted his research, but he was soon appointed to lead a team to develop long-range radar. He attended secret meetings on board a ship with EM Marsden, an eminent New Zealand physicist, to learn about progress with radar. He set about building experimental radar equipment that culminated in the remarkably successful Johannesburg radar transmitter. By 1941 Schonland was on loan to the British Army and, by 1944, he was the science and technology adviser to Field Marshal Lord Montgomery.

After the war, he returned to South Africa and did a magnificent job establishing the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

  • What A Great Idea! is published by Jacana Media and can be purchased at major bookstores at a recommended selling price of R295