Remembering Ray Wijewardene: Sri Lanka’s Renaissance Man

Ray Wijewardene
Ray Wijewardene

Ray Wijewardene (1924 – 2010) was an accomplished engineer, aviator, inventor, Olympian athlete and a public intellectual of the highest calibre.  Although educated at Cambridge and further trained at Harvard, he preferred to introduce himself as a farmer and mechanic ‘who got his hands dirty’. His third death anniversary falls on 18 August 2013.

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 a Science for Youth programme. It exposed us to various (then) modern technologies. 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 buffaloes, earthworms and growing our food and energy to become truly ‘non-dependent’ on costly imports.

It was his flying machines that fascinated us the most. As a pilot, Ray was licensed to fly all three kinds of flying machines: fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. But this pilot was flying not only factory-fitted, mass-manufactured units: he built and flew his own ultra-light aircraft and helicopters.

I first interviewed Ray for the media in 1988, and over the years did many more — including an indepth Q&A for India’s Down to Earth magazine. The last time we talked, on the record, was when Ray took part in a TV talk show that I hosted in 2008. I have written elsewhere on these encounters and our various collaborations.

I have just unearthed, from the depths of my own archives, an interview I arranged in early 1990 between Ray and science writer Peter Gwynne, who at the time was editor of Asia Technology magazine published from HongKong. I was their Sri Lanka correspondent.

Peter, who held a BA and MA in metallurgy from Oxford and had been a science writer with various publications (including Newsweek) before moving to HongKong, was on a short visit to Colombo. So I took him to meet one of my most colourful and outspoken scientific friends — Ray. Beyond the predictable Oxbridge banter, they talked about many things. I was just a fascinated fly on the wall…

Based on that encounter, Peter wrote a perceptive profile of Ray — and called him Sri Lanka’s Renaissance Man. An apt title, indeed, given that Ray was talented in many pursuits including music and painting, and had a refined sense of aesthetics, probably the basis of his design sense. (It took me 21 years to come up with anything comparable: when creating the Ray Wijewardene website in 2011, I called him ‘A Man for All Elements’).

Here’s the full profile from Asia Technology, April 1990:

Ray Wijewardene profiled in Asia Technology, April 1990
Ray Wijewardene profiled in Asia Technology, April 1990

PS: Asia Technology was a bold venture that didn’t last too long (even though it was part of the Dow Jones Company). The full colour, glossy publication was an early chronicler of Asia’s rise in science and technology, but was ahead of its time. It blazed like a supernova for a year and half, and then folded.