A Dynasty of Engineers - Three Generations of Tech Jacobsons Serving Society
August 1, 2019  

Supplied by WITS University (Alumni Relations) from SAIEE


(The following excerpts have been provided courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand's Alumni Relations section)

He was dutiful but difficult, brilliant but impatient, sure of his opinions and his direction. At his funeral in 1960, an elder brother was overheard to say: “There goes the man with all the answers.” He was also an “upstart colonial”. What did the top business people in England and America make of this young South African some 80 years ago when he dared to negotiate deals with them?

Louis Jacobson with his young son David

His son, who hardly knew him as he died tragically young, still wonders.

He was Louis Jacobson, the first of three generations of Jacobsons to pass through the School of Electrical Engineering at Wits. His son David and grandson Sven have also excelled in a changing and challenging world, supplying some answers themselves.

First that world needed raw materials and the power to extract them. Then it needed smarter, more efficient and more adventurous technologies and ways to make sense of information. And it always needs healing.

Sven Jacobson and his father David Jacobson

Pioneer in South African industry

Louis Jacobson, born in 1910 in Johannesburg, was an entrepreneur and an industrial pioneer. In his short life he stood out as a designer of heavy electrical machinery and a builder of major companies that manufactured it.

He graduated from Wits in 1932 with a BSc (Eng) in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (this was before the term “electronics” had even been coined) and worked for two years at the Victoria Falls Power Company near Johannesburg. This company supplied electricity to industry, including the gold mines. He then founded Alpha Electrical, an electrical motor repair workshop. This became Alpha Harris Pty Ltd, a designer and manufacturer of professional electrical equipment, which grew into the renowned First Electric Corporation of South Africa Ltd (FEC), the first of its kind to be listed on the JSE. FEC made an important contribution to the World War 2 effort, for example by providing equipment for degaussing ships to protect them from magnetic mines. The company became today’s Actom, still a major producer of electro-mechanical equipment at Knights on the East Rand, once Louis’s head office.

In the late 1950s Louis’s entrepreneurial spirit was ready for a new creation: FWJ Electrical Industries Pty Ltd, which he formed and led, in partnership with Carl Fuchs. One of FWJ’s innovative developments was the world’s first earth-leakage protection device for use in the mining industry, greatly reducing deaths and injuries from electrical shocks.

Louis married Edythe Sonnenberg and they made a home in Oaklands, Johannesburg. At the time of Louis’s death from a brain tumour at the age of 49, his son David Harris Jacobson was only 17, in his first year at Wits, and so he never really knew his father in an adult relationship.

To read more on this article, click here to be redirected to the University of Witwatersrand Alumni Relations section on their website