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Zimbabwe’s technology journey: The early years

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locomotiveIndependence day is upon us and with it we are caused to reflect on our history. Colonization itself is viewed with universal disapproval whilst the only undisputed advantageous outcome of colonisation was the technology brought into the country as a result.The indigenous peoples had their own social and cultural  systems  which   had   hardly  changed  for centuries.There were  no written  communications; no use was made of the wheel or the plough. In fact agriculture was designed merely to provide a basic subsistence. To this day the development of home grown solutions still remains rather slow and marginal.

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For most people before the 19th century farming was an arduous backbreaking task done by the hoe. It is rather strange that the use of cattle for tillage coincides with the arrival of the colonialists more so since the ox-drawn plough itself is an African invention and had been in use for several millennia. Around June 1902 the Matopos dam, the first dam in this country was completed, the seed for Zimbabwe’s rise as an agricultural nation had been sown. Irrigation was now practised at a large scale and towns could now be supplied with water and ablution services. Modest technological advancements as they were there were the foundation to our nation and form the spine of whatever technological advancements have been made since.Today there are over 80 dams in the country.

Long before the potholes plagued our road system, someone actually made the roads.

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Prior to 1890 there was no road system to talk of in Zimbabwe, only tracks known by hunters, the occasional road made by missionaries,like Robert Moffat who occasionally journeyed into the interior, for their wagons would have been quickly overgrown by bushes. On July 11,1890, the Pioneer column crossed into Zimbabwe. It proceeded north-east and then north over a distance of about 650 kilometres intending to get to Mount Hampden later ending at the Kopje. As they progressed they carved the first road system that became more or less permanent in addition to the establishment of the towns Masvingo, Chivhu and Harare.

They brought with them the ill famed Gatling gun, a regrettable technological advancement that contributed to the defeat of the Native population, led to the formation of the first police force and army. To capture these moments they brought with them the camera.Forget megapixels, these were bulky black and white contraptions, invented half a century earlier known as a Daguerreotype and required specialists to operate them. The oldest photograph of a Zimbabwean I could find was that of Lobengula the Ndebele king and that of his youngest daughter. There is another photo of him here dated 1893 but I rather doubt its authenticity; the women around him are supposed to be his wives.

It was on 27 June 1891 that the first copy of the Mashonaland Herald was printed by William Earnest Fairbridge. A precursor to our the modern Herald and indeed all our blogs, twitter and other new sites. It was a handwritten weekly produced using a cutting edge duplication process of that time and only became a printed edition in October of the next year.

In 1873 the Government of Cape Town had founded the Telegraph Department which oversaw the construction of electrical telegraph along railway lines into Rhodesia. The early lines comprised  a single galvanised iron wire mounted on wood poles with porcelain insulators. The return circuit was via the ground. Cecil John Rhodes, who was Prime minister of Cape Town used it to communicate with Jameson in Harare when they planned the Jameson raid in 1896. A distance of 2 500 km a journey of several painful months; a tenchical feat.It was after Chief Svosve cut 400 yards of this wire and paid the fine in Lobengula’s cattle that the second Anglo-Ndebele war broke out.

Far away from the coast and without navigable rivers; the country’s need for transport other than that of donkeys and ox drawn carts was obvious, necessitating the need for railway transport. The Bulawayo Mafikeng (South Africa)  route was completed on November 4 1897 whilst the Beira-Mutare opened a year later.In 1900 the Rhodesian Railways adjusted all railways to a standard guage ensuring smooth operation. The railway opened up the country to the outside world and allowed the free flow of technologies such as printing presses, importation of bicycles, the advent of the motor first motor car into the country as locomotives, as the steam trains were called, sped across the landscape to ferry goods from Europe and the world.

A lot has happened since the 1890s and below is a summary of some of these developments.

  • For a sterling sum of $600 000, Dorman Long completed the Alfred Beit bridge in 1929.Named after the philanthropist, diamond and gold magnate who funded its construction.
  • The first plane to come to Zimbabwe was the Vickers Vimy “Silver Queen 11” flown by Van Ryneveld and Brand from Europe in 1920. The first airport, Belvedere airport was somewhere near Bishop Gaul road. It had to be abandoned in favour of the current airport as space ran out. The later was commissioned in 1957.
  • The Bioscope came in the country around 1918 popularised by a South African production, The Rose of Rhodesia. Our fathers watched Tarzan and Jane in the golden 50s and 60s as the tech filtered down to the local population. With the bioscopes came the cinema culture. Today we have DVDs.
  • The Post Office and snail mail. Believe it or not it was once an innovation.
  • Radio
  • Shona is written for the first time around 1950. In 1957 Solomon Mutsvairo wrote the first Shona novel Feso.
  • The Tobacco Research Board and its  weather station was established in 1950 under the Tobacco Research Act. Zimbabwe rose in prominence as a major exporter of high quality tobacco. ( It was named Kutsaga. Probably meant Kutsvaga because the consonantal construction,“tsv”, did not exist back then.)
  • Kariba Dam and Hydroelectric Station is built circa 1958.
  • Telephones. On 21 August 1985 Prime Minister Robert Mugabe opened the Mazowe Earth Satellite station which was a significant stride in communications.
  • Television. I still remember the day we bought our own black and white Peacock set in 1992 these days it seems we have always had HDTVs it is taken for granted that everything should be in colour.
  • Computers. I am curious when did the first computer come into our beloved country and who brought it in.
  • Laptops. Laptops are not computers to some of us who know the difference.
  • Dial up. I miss the 16kbps days really. That was before I suddenly had all those Nigerian uncles and cousins who want to bequeath 100 million dollars to me. Just what am I supposed to do with all that money.

Developments After 1995

  • Econet and Cellphones. Econet was a technological innovation mind you.
  • Mango juice cards I wonder where they went.
  • DSL.
  • UHF
  • Wimax
  • VSAT
  • Fibre
  • Smartphones
  • Tablets and I don’t mean those you get from your doctor.

So I have tried here to come up with a list of the advancements that we have made in technology since 1890. Feel free to add to the list or provide dates for some of  the events. You could also provide links to photos to some of this technology. No doubt the future will be great but sometimes I miss the past. Colourful as it was.


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13 thoughts on “Zimbabwe’s technology journey: The early years

  1. It would seem to me that all the examples you gave about photography in Zim are actually paintings.Unless if u r implying that there was a method to create a collage without using software(software being absurd coz the PC had not been invented yet) or painting one yourself.Am just saying….could we get our facts right.

    1. My friend have you ever been to the national archives. All the examples are actually pictures. if they were paintings they would be in color!

        1. Surely a photograph taken over a hundred years old, physical in nature and prone to degration, using very old technology cannot be of the same quality as even one taken 50year ago. I think it is rather ignorant to say “grainy and crappy” when describing historical artifacts

  2. Imagine they communicated with the outside world, without cellphones. We Salute you for consulting the dead on behalf of the living!

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