Groundviews

Ray Wijewardene: An Extraordinary Thinker and Tinkerer


Ray Wijewardene in his study at Colombo home, playing with pet squirrel. Larger photo in the background is that of Sir Charles Hayward of Firth Cleveland Group. Photo courtesy http://www.raywijewardene.net.

A website about the life and vision of the late Dr Ray Wijewardene, one of the most accomplished and innovative engineers and scientists produced by Sri Lanka, is being officially launched on September 28. In this article, the website’s principal writer Nalaka Gunawardene recalls working with an original thinker who also tinkered more than most.

If I had to condense the multi-faceted and fascinating life of Ray Wijewardene, I would reduce it to a whole lot of question marks and exclamation marks. In his 86 years, Ray generated more than his fair share of both.

He was unpigeonholeable: engineer, farmer, inventor, aviator and sportsman all rolled into one. Whether at work or play, he was an innovative thinker who rose above his culture and training to grasp the bigger picture.

As an inventor, Ray was into problem solving, not piling up patents or publishing research papers in scholarly journals. Theory was important, but only as a means to figuring things out. He was both a quintessential tinkerer and a perennial fixer.

Ray has been rightly compared with Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance Man, and with the appropriate technology promoter Ernst Schumacher (of Small Is Beautiful fame). To me, he was our own version of Caractacus Potts — the eccentric yet lovable inventor in Ian Fleming’s children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, written in 1964 and adapted as a popular Hollywood movie in 1968.

Indeed, the parallels are striking. Both men experimented on a wide array of gadgets and devices at the family farm. Neither was very good at commercially exploiting their ideas (with one exception each). Whereas Caractacus made a fantastic car that could fly and float in addition to running on land, Ray built light aircraft using motor car engines!

As a pilot, Ray was licensed to fly all three kinds of flying machines: fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. But while his industrialist cousin Upali Wijewardene was flying around in factory-made corporate jets and helicopters, Ray chose to make his own flying machines. Ray built perfectly airworthy designs in his own garage, many of them costing — and weighing — less than an average SUV.

Ray was particularly keen to build amphibious small planes that could also land on, and take off from water bodies. That made perfect sense as numerous lakes and reservoirs cover more than a tenth of Sri Lanka’s total land area.

First Encounter
It was among his flying machines that I first met Ray in late 1986 at the Ratmalana Airport, just south of Colombo. One Sunday morning, he took time off to talk to a group of us high school leavers participating in the Science for Youth programme, organised by the Arthur C Clarke Centre. It exposed us to various (then) modern technologies over six consecutive weekends. Much of that ‘new knowledge’ has long become obsolete; but the inspiration propelled many of us to pursue careers in science.

That inspiration stemmed mostly from the shy and unorthodox Ray Wijewardene. Although he was then in his early 60s, he had the sense of wonder of a 10-year-old. He gave us practical demonstrations about problem solving and innovation in three areas close to his heart: energy, agriculture and transport.

At the time, he was looking for ways to improve the ordinary bicycle, so that riders could go faster with less effort. He also talked about buffalos, earthworms and growing our food and energy to become truly ‘non-dependent’ on costly imports. But it was his flying machines that fascinated us the most.

Flying was also the theme of the first media interview that I had with Ray, which was published in December 1988. For two hours, Ray talked enthusiastically about his favourite inventors — the Wright brothers, and how ‘right’ they have been proven, over and over again.

Several others had designed heavier-than-air machines during the 19th Century, he said, but none had been as practical as the Wright brothers. While other experimenters put more emphasis on developing powerful engines, the Wright brothers focused on developing a reliable method of pilot control.

As cycle repairers, they believed – correctly – that an unstable vehicle like a flying machine could be controlled and balanced with enough practice. They tinkered endlessly with models and prototypes, and also used a small, home-built wind tunnel to collect more accurate data and insights. Such experimentation made their design more efficient and navigable. The rest is history…

Ray felt that the Wright brothers had set the ‘gold standard’ for all innovators and inventors. He was a firm believer in learning by doing, even if that meant getting your hands dirty, or worse, risking life and limb. Although he taught himself to use personal computers later in life, he was truly in his element amidst nuts, bolts, grease and soil.

As a young man, Ray apprenticed under the British aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. After Ray had successfully test-flown an aircraft he himself had made, Sir Geoffrey remarked: “This very seldom happens nowadays, that one person designs an aircraft, builds it and also test-flies it. Large teams are now required for each of these operations. But mind you, the old way had its advantages…it quickly eliminated the bad designers!”

Ray never forgot those words. He was always the first flyer of his home-built aircraft. In nearly 50 years of flying, he was involved in three serious crashes and several minor mishaps — but each time, he lived to fly another day. (It was Sri Lanka’s civil war that finally grounded him.)

Refreshing Perspectives
His refreshing perspectives on agriculture, energy and environment were drawn from this rare combination of the bird’s eye view with the toad’s eye view.

For Ray, “farming was bread and butter – and flying the jam on top”. So he had his head in the clouds, but feet firmly on the ground. He brought the aviator’s precision and engineer’s pragmatism into agriculture — and topped it up with a genuine concern for the small, subsistence farmer.

In his view, a key problem with agricultural research in Sri Lanka (and in much of the developing world) was that those studied farming didn’t rely practise for their own living. In contrast, the small farmer must eke out a meagre existence from whatever land, water, seeds or livestock available. Her stark choice: innovate or perish.

“I’ve rarely been able to get one of my (learned) colleagues to step into a paddy field with me and plough behind a buffalo,” he once lamented. “Yet that is where you BEGIN the process of development, by doing it yourself. You soon begin to rationalise the situation, and realise that a tractor does not mechanise agriculture; it merely mechanises the buffalo!”

From that vantage point, you then ask: why do we plough the fields at all? Eventually, Ray figured out that the main purpose of ploughing in the tropics was weed control. “Now that presents a totally different insight into the problem, and you can then start resolving that REAL problem, which is to do with weed control rather than earth-moving.”

That was typical of Ray who remained eager for new knowledge, clarity and self-improvement to the very end. I can’t think of a better embodiment of Thomas R. Dewar’s words: “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

For a quarter century, Ray was my own ‘mind-opener’. He was also my mentor, ardent reader and gentle critic. Each encounter and each exchange of letters or emails enriched me. In turn, I shared Ray’s distilled wisdom as often and widely as I could.

For example, in mid 1995, the noted Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal commissioned me to interview Ray for Down to Earth, the science and environmental fortnightly magazine he founded in the early 1990s. Anil said: “Ray is not only a top agricultural expert in the whole developing world, but one of our most original thinkers.”

Over a few days, I recorded a wide-ranging interview with Ray covering many aspects of science, technology and development. It remains one of the most memorable among hundreds I have done in print and broadcast media. Down to Earth published a compact version in their issue dated 31 October 1995. I released our full exchange on Groundviews on that sombre day in August 2010 when Ray’s body was finally returned to the elements.

So what was it like to have walked in the nurturing shadow of Ray Wijewardene?

In his own style, I’d say: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For more information and memories, visit: www.raywijewardene.net or on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/RayWijewardene

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Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene first met Ray Wijewardene in the mid 1980s when he covered the latter’s work for the local and international media. Later, they collaborated in various science communication projects – the last was on climate change for the Sri Lanka 2048 TV debate series.

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[Editors note: Also read Do we need a street address? by Sivam Krish]