A touch of RSSAf history……

HENRY SELBY HELE-SHAW (1854-1941) – see sequel from Canada

The name of Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, LL.D., D.Sc., D. Eng., F.R.S., Wh.Sch., is not well known to South Africans or even to Fellows and Members of the Royal Society of South Africa although he was one of the founders of the Society in the early 1900s.  When the Royal Society of South Africa was envisaged in 1905, there were only three Fellows of the Royal Society of London in the country and they formed the first provisional Council. Hele-Shaw, an engineer, was one of them and he was based in the Transvaal. The other two, Sir David Gill and Mr Sydney Hough, were both astronomers in Cape Town.

Hele-Shaw was one of the 20th century’s most inventive engineering scientists and educators. His work in hydrodynamics continues to be relevant even today, his invention of the variable pitch airscrew ensured the success of high speed aircraft, while his educational programme for engineers by way of a National Certificate remains the basis of a post-school technical education in Britain and in many other parts of the world.

Born in Billericay in Essex and one of 13 children in a middle-class Victorian family, Hele-Shaw had a good education for the time. After school, he began his technical training as an apprentice in an engineering works and won a number of prizes and scholarships that enabled him to embark on more ambitious studies at the University College in Bristol, which he completed in 1879. There was no degree in science or engineering until 1872, and gifted academic engineers being at a premium, Hele-Shaw, then aged 27, was promoted to the Chair of Engineering at that institution in 1881 and he began to publish his research. He accepted the Chair of Engineering at the University College in Liverpool in 1885, the best engineering laboratory in England at the time. He married into the Rathbone family, wealthy philanthropists and Quakers who supported education and social reform. Able to generate funding and attract students of excellence, by 1903, as Harrison Professor of Engineering, Hele-Shaw’s department grew in numbers and in renown.

As Professor, Hele-Shaw continued with his research, publishing important papers in, for example, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1885) on topics as various as calculating machines, steam engines, molecular theory, aerial navigation, and aspects of motor vehicles, then a novel form of transportation. His major theoretical work, however, lay in fluid dynamics and he remained engaged with this field throughout his life. In this early period, Hele-Shaw demonstrated visually how flows operate by inventing the “Hele-Shaw cell” that displays the two-dimensional flow of a viscous fluid in a narrow gap between two parallel plates. (This has spawned a branch of modern study in the former Soviet Union called “Integrable systems and mathematical physics”). In 1897 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from St Andrews and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1899.    

South Africa was thus honoured when, at the peak of his career, Hele-Shaw agreed to come to the Transvaal in January 1904 to set up engineering education in what were then the four British colonies (after the South African War of 1899-1902), already envisaged as a future united country. However, local politics and inter-colonial rivalry were to bedevil this period of his life and, disappointed and disillusioned, he left in December 1905. The fraught history of South African higher education between 1902 and the early 1920s is not the subject of this account but Hele-Shaw – a straightforward engineer with what he regarded as an educational task ahead of him – was caught in the political manoeuvrings of the time that are well recorded elsewhere. Essentially, the battle was around the location of South Africa’s first university, the power of the School of Mines, the personalities of Fabian Ware (later Sir Fabian), Edmund Sargant, and Sir Alfred Milner. Instead of founding a workable educational system throughout the four colonies, Hele-Shaw was surrounded by obstructionists and their personal agendas and his job was downgraded to Principal of the Transvaal Technical Institute despite his excellent curricula and the growing number of students. When he left South Africa, the furthest Hele-Shaw went in criticising his superiors, his colleagues and the government, was his wish for the country’s youth to ‘’start their active work in life free from the narrow prejudice and bitterness which ill-advised, often actually unpatriotic counselors, apparently still seek to promote.’’

Once back in England, Hele-Shaw’s contribution to engineering education was to conceive and establish the National Certificate scheme in the 1920s. As far as research was concerned, he remained extremely versatile, with interests in flame-throwers, a walking machine, Meccano sets, and ink-pots – he registered some 82 patents in all. His important legacy, however, is in hydraulic transmission gear and the invention of the “Hele-Shaw Pump”, that attests to his continuing interest in vortices and flows, research that is now applied to petrol and diesel engines as well as pollution control. Together with Thomas Beacham he invented the automatic variable pitch hydraulically operated airscrew that played a major part in Britain’s success during World War II.

Hele-Shaw’s contribution to South Africa lies in his energising the study of engineering at a higher level in the country early in its history, emphasising its academic credentials and the importance of creative and innovative research. He campaigned for an intellectual as well as a vocational approach to higher education, promoting engineering as a discipline and employing competent and knowledgeable staff, many of whom continued their teaching careers into the era of the fully fledged University of the Witwatersrand in later years.

For a detailed account of Hele-Shaw and his South African career, see J. Carruthers, “Henry Selby Hele-Shaw LL.D., D.Sc., D. Eng., F.R.S., Wh.Sch., (1854-1941): Engineer, inventor and educationist”, South African Journal of Science, 106 (1/2), 2010, pp. 34-39.