Dr H J van der Bijl

Dr H J van der Bijl, the first Chairman of ESCOM (1923 -1948), was also one of the first truly great South African Scientists


Hendrik Johannes van der Bijl, the second son of Pieter Gerhard van der Bijl was born on 23rd November 1887 in Pretoria, some 33 years after Scottish missionary David Livingstone first set eyes on the “The Smoke That Thunders” (the Victoria Falls). His parents were typical burghers of the Zuid Afrikaansche (i.e. Boer) Republic of the Transvaal. His father Pieter Gerhard van der Bijl was the seventh generation of the original Dutch van der Bijl family to be born in South Africa. The family had moved to Pretoria a few months before Hendrik was born. Pieter build up a successful business as a produce merchant and property investor. He became quite influential, counting among his many friends such well-known South African politicians and future Prime Ministers as Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, and Barry Hertzog.

Young Hendrik’s education was disrupted because of the Anglo-Boer War. He attended the Staatsch Model School in Pretoria, but the school was closed down and converted to a prisoner-of-war camp. (It was this camp from which young war correspondent Winston Churchill made his much-publicised escape during the early days of the war, just one day before he was to be released anyway.) After the fall of Pretoria in 1900, the family moved to Gordon’s Bay and Hendrik was sent to Boys’ High School at Franschhoek, from where he matriculated. The boy was interested in music and literature, and philosophy interested him deeply, but it was the exactness and logic of science that gave him great satisfaction, the application of which he held in even greater esteem. The boy did well at school and continued his studies at the Victoria College (today the University of Stellenbosch).


At Victoria College he excelled at physics, but in 1908, when he graduated it was with distinctions in mathematics and chemistry as well. He was also awarded a prize as best student in mathematics and physics.

In those days opportunities for a man of his talents were somewhat limited. He could either become a lecturer and later a professor of physics or join the Department of Agriculture.

On the other hand, he could further his studies in Europe. This he decided to do and as the German universities were considered leaders in the field of experimental physics, he went to Germany. Up to that stage his father had paid all his education fees, but stated clearly that further expenses were to be looked upon as a loan.

Van der Bijl first studied at Halle, later at the University of Leipzig and although the language was strange to him, it in no way hindered his academic achievements. Within two years, van der Bijl completed his thesis to prove an electron carried the same fundamental charge in ionised liquids as in gases. Impressed by his talent and dedication, his supervisor recommended him highly and he was offered the post of Assistant in Physics at the Royal School of Technology at Dresden. At the beginning of 1912, the 24 year-old van der Bijl took up his new duties, having left Leipzig with the degrees of Masters of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy.

The head of the Department of Physics at Dresden was Professor Hallwachs, the discoverer of the photoelectric effect. Hallwachs had observed that when ultra-violet light struck the surface of a metallic plate, some of the electrons were dislodged at high velocities. If Einstein’s and Planck’s new quantum theories were correct, the wavelength of the light should be proportional to the maximum velocity of the electrons. However, several attempts to demonstrate this had so far proved fruitless. Hallwachs brought this perplexing problem to van der Bijl’s attention and suggested that he look into it. This led to van der Bijl’s paper entitled “Zur Bestimmung der Erstenergien lichtelektrisch ausgeslöster Elektronen” [The Determination of the Initial Energies of Photoelectrically Liberated Electrons] being published in April 1913.


Just before the publication of his paper, van der Bijl met Robert Millikan, the eminent American physicist. Millikan was impressed with the young van der Bijl and recommended the young scientist to the Western Electric Company. Van der Bijl accepted their job offer and set out for New York.

His research at this company on the thermionic valve, which was developed by Dr Lee de Forest, led to his treatise entitled The Thermionic Vacuum Tube and Its Applications. It became the standard textbook on the subject for more than 20 years. This research led to the use of these tubes in radio communication. The first successful transmission of speech by radio was made in 1915. Later that year speech was transmitted by radio over a distance of more than 8 000 km. Van der Bijl managed to get the amplifiers to work to the precise tolerances required over this very long distance.

He married an American girl and during the First World War was approached by the American government to assist them with the defence system of the country. He was also associated with the Bell Telephone Laboratories and by 1917 had made significant contributions to the development of the photo-electric cell and by this means also to television. A book which he later published, remained a standard textbook on the subject for some 45 years. Hendrik van der Bijl was extensively honoured for his many scientific achievements.


General J C Smuts had assumed the reigns of government in South Africa. Smuts thought that a scientific adviser would be an asset to his Cabinet, and as van der Bijl’s fame had spread to the country of his birth, he was Smuts’ first choice.

Van der Bijl was persuaded to return to South Africa and in 1920 he left the United States. He was formally appointed as Scientific and Technical Adviser to the Department of Mines and Industries, but was directly responsible to the Prime Minister. At first his work was unrelated to electricity, but soon he started with plans for a public utility to provide the industries with cheap electricity.

The United States had given him plenty of opportunity of acquainting himself with this type of concern. “South Africa”, he said, “cannot afford to be unmindful of the very great changes that are taking place in other countries. Once cannot help being impressed with the enormous industrial potentialities of this country”.

Van der Bijl wanted to combine the advantage of a state-controlled undertaking with those of a public concern. The capital would be provided by the State and the company would be run on commercial lines. These ideas had already occurred to van der Bijl while in the United States.


In 1923 the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) was founded. As Chairman, van der Bijl borrowed R16 million from the State and began putting his plans into action. From the outset the undertaking was success and within 10 years van der Bijl was able to pay back to the State loan.

Under his expert guidance ESCOM progressed form strength to strength and within a short period of time van der Bijl was able to fulfil his promise: South Africa was assured of sufficient inexpensive power for its fast-growing industries.

Hendrik van der Bijl had originally shaped the Office of the Chairman of ESCOM as an executive chairmanship. It was only while he ran the supplies directorate during World War II that George Harding and Percy Furness handled much of the day-to-day management of ESCOM. Towards the end of the war, van der Bijl resumed control when the expropriation of the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company Limited (VFP) was raised, and he only appointed Harding and Furness joint General Managers (that is, executive officers) of ESCOM in 1948.


With ESCOM progressing so well, this far-sighted scientist was able to direct his attention to the steel industry. Before long ESCOM had an industrial twin, namely Iscor (the South African Iron and Steel Corporation). In this instance the promise was to provide inexpensive steel for South Africa. In 1934 the first steel was produced.


During the Second World War, van der Bijl became Director-General of War Supplies and later Director of Supplies, appointments that afforded him the status of a Minister.

It was also during this period that he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honour he considered to be the greatest afforded him.

By the end of the war in 1945, Dr Hendrik van der Bijl could look back on 25 years devoted to serving his country. During this period he had been responsible for the founding of dynamic undertakings such as ESCOM, Iscor, Amcor, Vecor and the development of Vanderbijlpark. In this time he had been responsible for the rapid advance of his country along the paths of progress and prosperity. He was a man of vision and forcefulness who planned magnificently. The benefits of these attributes are being reaped in South Africa today.

He had relinquished a most promising career in the United States to be of service to the land of his birth.


Dr Hendrik van der Bijl, a truly great South African, passed away in 1948 while still in the prime of his life.


The sources of this material are:

A Symphony of Power – The Eskom Story, and Eskom: Golden Jubilee 1923 – 1973.

“The Remarkable Dr Hendrik van der Bijl” Dirk J Vermeulen, SAIEE Historical Interest Group, The Proceedings of the IEEE vol 86 no 12, December 1998

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