A rainmaker?

Before his emigration, Wolf Klaphake conducted extensive experiments in Yugoslavia to develop a dew condenser. He was hoping that Australian government authorities would enable him to test his invention in Australia.

Dew condensers

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Wolf Klaphake invested a considerable amount of time and money in developing a dew condenser. The idea to generate water by condensing atmospheric humidity was not new.

Klaphake studied processes for dew condensation that had been used in Europe and other parts of the world. In 1933 and 1934, he visited England for several months to learn about dew ponds. He built at least one large dew condenser in Yugoslavia.

'I made many new observations' – From the ABC radio play A Doubtful Character
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Shortly after his arrival in Melbourne, he gave a talk to the Society of Industrial Chemists, in which he outlined his idea. [FN1]

First page of published article on water condenser.

Klaphake's talk was published in the Society's journal.

NAA: MP76/1, 1001, p. 3

Water for Cook

Two of Melbourne's daily newspapers considered Klaphake's arrival in 1935 aboard the Moldavia newsworthy. Under the headline 'Drawing water from air is aim of scientist among Moldavia arrivals', the Sun News reported on 15 October:

Dr. Wolf Klaphake, from Berlin, bearing a credential from the noted British scientist, Lord Rutherford, and an invitation from the Premier of South Australia (Mr. Butler), has a plan for drawing water from air to put before the governments of Australia. He has been working on the invention for 10 years, and he said yesterday it was practicable wherever there was humidity of at least 50 per cent.

Klaphake had met the South Australian Premier, RL Butler, in London. As a result of that meeting, Klaphake proposed a project to erect a dew condenser at Cook in the Nullarbor, along the Kalgoorlie–Port Augusta railway line.

In the waterless Nullarbor Plain, the procurement of potable water presented a formidable challenge to the authorities. Bore water was not fit for human consumption, and for many years seemingly the only alternative to trucking the water all the way from Kalgoorlie was to build water condensers fired by coal. But the costs of running the condenser at Cook were prohibitive. In 1918, a report by the Commonwealth Railways Transportation and Stores Branch found that it was cheaper to truck water to Cook. [FN2]

Condenser cooler at Cook, 1917.

Trans-Australian Railway photograph of a condenser cooler at Cook, 10 December 1917.

NAA: B3104, 4302253

The scarcity of potable water remained an issue at Cook until at least the 1950s.

Rejection

Lord Rutherford had recommended Klaphake to Sir David Rivett, the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Rivett asked the Public Works Department to cost Klaphake's idea. In February 1936, he told Klaphake:

I have received from Mr. Mackennal, the Works Director, a sketch which he has prepared of the structure which you suggested to him for erection at Cook, and also his estimate of the cost of putting this up. The estimate is £16,000 ... This seems to me to rule out further consideration of your plan as a practical operation. I am quite sure that the government would not for one moment entertain a suggestion for expenditure on this scale. [FN3]

Rivett's rejection was a severe blow for Klaphake.

Garbage

After Rivett had dismissed the Cook proposal, Klaphake stopped pursuing the idea of building a dew condenser. Instead he devoted his time to a new project: the development of a process for the fermentation of household garbage. This scheme may have appeared as ludicrous to the CSIR as that to condense atmospheric humidity.

Entrepreneur HJ Davys, who funded Klaphake's research, was concerned that the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Germany would lead to Klaphake's internment. On 1 November 1938, Davys wrote to the Australian Prime Minister to seek an assurance that Klaphake would not be interned given the national importance of his research.

Letter from HJ Davys to the Prime Minister

Letter from HJ Davys to the Prime Minister on behalf of Wolf Klaphake.

NAA: MP508/1, 255/741/381, p. 68

After the outbreak of World War II, Klaphake's research attracted suspicion. In 1940, Military Intelligence received a report from the local mayor, a Mr Harrison:

Mr. Harrison reports that Dr. Klaphake, of Dundas, has a 25 h.p. motor, is breeding bacteria, but [this] is supposed to be for the purpose of turning ordinary garbage into fertiliser. It is stated, however, that nothing goes into the place and nothing comes out. Harrison is going to try to sell him some garbage to see if he will buy it. [FN4]

A pioneer

Klaphake's idea to build a dew condenser was not as far-fetched as it may seem. Today scientists at the University of Bordeaux are rediscovering Klaphake's research. It appears that his ideas were ahead of his time.

Remnants of dew condenser in Croatia

This photograph shows the remnants of one of the dew condensers in Croatia.

Courtesy of Daniel Beysens, OPUR

A postcard found among Klaphake's papers suggested that he built at least one dew condenser on or near the island of Viš, off the Croatian coast. In 2002, a team of scientists led by Daniel Beysens of the International Organization for Dew Utilization (based in Pessac, France), visited Viš and found the remnants of two of Klaphake's dew condensers. The scientists wrote a report about their expedition to Croatia to locate traces of Klaphake's experiments. [FN5]

Notes

[1] Klaphake's article is available online on the Rex Research website. For further information about Klaphake's condensation technique, see also Robert A Nelson, Air Wells and Dew Ponds.

[2] Acting General Superintendent to Commissioner Commonwealth Railways, 6 June 1918.
NAA: B300, 1343 Part 1, p.3 

[3] David Rivett’s reply ended Klaphake’s hopes that he would be able to interest the Australian governments in financing his dew condenser.
NAA: MP76/1, 1001, p.9

[4] ‘Report from Mr. Harrison (Suburban Mayor)’, nd (c. May 1940).
NAA: ST1233, N20785, p.805

[5] A description of the dew condenser project is available on the International Organization for Dew Utilization website.

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