David Howcroft is a Fellow and Past President of the Society for Automation, Instrumentation, Measurement and Control in South Africa. (SAIMC) and Past Chairman of the Industrial Instrumentation Group (IIG)
Born in Cape Town during 1942, he grew up in Johannesburg, serendipitously in the lee of Northcliff, the highest outcrop of the uplifted Witwatersrand, the White Waters Ridge.
After matriculating at Roosevelt High School he went to Cambridge and studied electronics at the Pye Radio and Television training college. 1960 was the age of the first commercial transistors and his final project was to build a 9-transistor portable radio. Each separate transistor was the size of a fingernail. Today, in a memory stick, billions of transistors fit in the same space!
After two years of practical experience in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he returned to Johannesburg to study further at Witwatersrand Technical College and use his knowledge of electronics to work in industry on instrumentation and automation.
Over the next 47 years:
Designed, installed and commissioned automation systems for just about every industry in South Africa
Installed the measuring instruments for the first synthetic diamond press in South Africa at De Beers Diamond Research Labs as well as steelmaking at Iscor, continuous casting at Highveld Steel, arc furnaces at Middleburg, Impala Platinum at Springs, vanadium at Steelpoort and gold refining in Germiston
Was in charge of the supply and installation of electrical data logging transducers for Escom and SA Railways
In 1980, started his own business that designed and installed equipment for automation of factories at Unilever, SA Breweries, Nestle and many more
Presentations on automation to final year students of Witwatersrand University at the invitation of Prof Roy Marcus
Designed a 32 channel computer-based FFT sound analyser for large power station boilers to identify and locate high-pressure leaks before they could cause serious consequential damage. When he sold his businesses and retired in 2010, over 260 of these systems had been fitted to boilers on power stations in South Africa and around the world
During 2008 he was invited to consult on measuring instrumentation for the Nuclear Pebble Bed Reactor which should have made South Africa the world leader in this technology. Unfortunately, as the prototype was being built, the funding was suddenly diverted to the more immediate needs of the FIFA 2010 soccer World Cup with its’ required stadiums, roads, trains and airport infrastructures.
In order to control anything, whether compressing carbon into diamonds, continuous casting steel or ensuring the quality of beer, one needs to understand the process and then imagine the dynamics of how the system will operate and what you want it to do. You then select sensors to measure force, level, temperature, pressure, flow, speed, frequency, time, distance, position, composition and anything else that may be required. For this one needs a thorough understanding of science as modern instrumentation uses almost every technology known. Level alone can be measured using optical, mechanical, electrical (resistive, capacitive inductive), pressure, force, acoustic, radar, laser, and nuclear technology.
I have always maintained that ‘instrumentation is the practical application of science’. Luckily I was always seriously interested in science and an avid reader of Scientific American for more than 50 years. During a lifetime in Process Automation, I knew instinctively which processes would work and how to automate them.
I have approached my thirty five year interest in the Vredefort Meteorite Impact in the same way. Even though the forces, pressures and temperatures are almost beyond imagination, the philosophy remains the same. I am not looking at the geology in a conventional way, but rather from what feels right to me both physically and dynamically.
From 1964 onwards my work took me to many mines, going down cramped, wet, crowded, high-speed cages into the bowels of the Earth. It became obvious to me that the gold in the Witwatersrand Complex was related to the Vredefort Meteorite Structure. I was always told that this was not the accepted geological explanation because the dates were wrong although everyone always thought it was a good story.
In the early 1990s, I produced my first PowerPoint on this subject which I called ‘Meteorites, Minerals and Merensky’. This, and updated versions have entertained and intrigued many groups of people ever since.
In order to understand what I feel you have to really open your mind to the immensity of the variables involved. Most of them are millions, if not billions of times greater than what we are used to in the world around us. I believe that I am offering a valid and considered solution to the mystery of the Vredefort Structure.
These hypotheses regarding the meteorites and the minerals deposited in 214 Ma, could change the way that we look at the geology of southern Africa and the worldwide effects that resulted.