Prof Kornelis (Kees) Antonie Schouhamer Immink inspired graduates at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) this week with his message that engineers have the power to change the world. New environments present new opportunities, driving innovation and a call for change.

Prof Immink, one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century in consumer electronics, accepted an honorary doctoral degree – Doctor Honoris Causa for Technical and Scientific Research during the University’s second graduation series.

UJ’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment conferred the honorary doctoral degree on Prof Immink as acknowledgement for his instrumental role in the development of digital audio, video and data recording systems, and for the profound impact his contributions and inventions has made in today’s digital society.

In his address, Prof Immink expressed his gratitude for receiving an honorary doctorate from the University and spoke about his passion for science and engineering, saying: “I am an engineer because I have a sincere passion for science and engineering. I’ve had this passion since I was a young boy. I have always loved everything that moves – from steam engines, to bicycles and locomotives, to sailing boats and planes.”

Prof Immink added that “I would have loved to work side-by-side with James Watt on the design of a new steam engine. Or to have worked with Michael Faraday on developing the first electrical motor. These are fascinating inventions by pioneering engineers.”

He emphasised that engineers have throughout history changed the world we live in. “Book printing, gunpowder and even the industrial revolution are the results of engineering.

Steve Jobs hired John Sculley from PepsiCo with the legendary pitch, ‘Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or, do you want to come with me and change the world?’ Sculley went on to join Apple, one of the world’s biggest technology companies. The results were evident. So, yes, ‘Engineers do change the world’.”

Prof Immink concludes: “An engineer must be creative and be able to solve technical problems. To be an inventive engineer, you have to be willing to live with the bipolar feeling that either the problem at hand is too complicated or that you are just too dumb to solve it. An engineer must have an excellent education.

“To achieve excellence in engineering requires good governance in our academic institutions and beyond, and the freedom to conduct independent research. To the new engineers and scientists gathered together in this room, I’d like to say ‘Spread out over the world, and change it to a better one’. You can do it; your fellow engineers and scientists of the past have paved your way.”

This was the second honorary doctorate the University awarded this year. An honorary doctoral degree – Doctor Legum (Doctor of Laws) honoris causa was awarded on USA President Barack Hussein Obama in acknowledgement of his social and intellectual achievements that strengthen international diplomacy in May 2014. USA Ambassador to South-Africa, Ambassador Patrick Gaspard accepted the honorary doctorate on behalf of USA President Obama.

Prof Immink was, for over 25 years, Phillips’ leading engineer in the creation and development of digital audio and video products. His many inventions are universally found in all digital media such as the Compact Disc, DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

The impact of his work on consumer electronics is so large, that it is virtually impossible to cite digital audio or video that does not reflect his work. In the mid-70s, Prof Immink conducted pioneering experiments on digital optical recording that led to the creation of the Compact Disc that gave way to the DVD, and Blu-ray Disc.

He conducted the very first experiments on digital audio recording using optical discs in 1976. In 1977, Prof Immink developed the coding method that made digital optical recording much less sensitive to the disc damaging, making it possible to introduce the Compact Disc (CD). In 1982, he conducted the very first experiment with erasable CDs paving the way to home-recordable discs.

Fuelled by his practical contributions, he has made seminal contributions to Information Theory, shaping the fundamental knowledge of digital coding and techniques.

He has written over 150 articles on constrained coding and has published widely on constructions and properties of codes. He has authored four books including the landmark monograph Code for Mass Data Storage Systems. Prof Immink has collaborated for several years with the Centre for Telecommunications at UJ, South Africa.

His creativity resulted in more than 1 100 patents, across the world, covering inventions in disciplines such as optics, mechanics, coding and electronics.

Prof Immink received several tributes that summarise the impact of his contributions to the digital audio and video revolution. Among the accolades received are the IEEE Edison Medal for a career of creative contributions to the technologies of digital video, audio and data recording and an individual Technology Emmy Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS).

In 2000 Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands bestowed him a knighthood.