By Janaka Perera
Reproduced with kind permission from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority
In the early 20th Century and before , Sri Lanka’s industries had to depend solely on coal and fuel oil imported at considerable expense . None gave thought to the fact that in the island’s mountain streams was a gift more precious than her famed gems, imported coal or oil. It was left to Devapura Jayasena Wimalasurendra, whose 134th birth anniversary falls on September 17th to make that great discovery.
The story of D.J Wimalasurendra who performed the ‘miracle’ of turning water into electricity goes back to the early days of the last Century when the British had intemed Boer Prisoners at Diyatalawa, following their defeat in the South African war (1899- 1902).
Sri Lanka’s central hills were then dense jungle except for the tea plantations. Testing the soil in the area at the time were two men . One of them was engineer Wimalasurendra whom the colonial government had appointed to look for gold deposits. The other was his assistant-a Boer prisoner, who was also an engineer.His engineering skills had earned him greater freedom than his fellow prisoners . The two men had earlier looked for gold in the Kelani Valley.
Walking through hill country jungle the tired engineers could hear the roar of the Laxapana- Aberdeen water falls. After arriving there the Boer quenched his thirst with the cascading water . He then called called Wimalasurendra who was enjoying the scenery.
‘Wimalasurendra’, the foreigner said ,”there may be no gold in this soil but there could be gold in the water, I am sure of it.
His words set Wimalasurendra thinking . As they walked away from the spot his mind was already working on an idea. He wondered why this vast resource of water was allowed to go to waste and not harnessed for peoples use . But he was not asked to submit any plans or estimates for a hydro-electric scheme.
More than a decade later in 1918, Wimalasurendra delivered a key note address to the Engineering Association of Ceylon, “On the Economics of Power Utilization in Ceylon” . Here he indicated that the harnessing of the Mahaweli river , Kehelgamu Oya and Maskeli Oya for hydropower development would inaugurate an industrial era for this country. It was an idea that most people had not dreamed of at that time. He listed several industries which could be established by exploiting hydro-electric power . He also envisaged the electrification of railways- something this country is yet to achieve nearly 90 years after the idea was first mooted.
Strangely the only people skeptical about these projects and scoffed at him were among the engineering fraternity- especially Wimalasurendra’s colleagues in the now-defunct Public Work’s Department (PWD) the very institution to which he belonged. His supervisors frowned at his ideas . Others poured scorn at him for what they called his “Journeys into the realms of fantasy” .One European boss of his department had transferred him to a remote area where he would have no access to scientific literature , data and statistics that inspired his dreams .
But Wimalasurendra’s views fired the imagination of such men of stature as Sir James Peiris, Sir Marcus Fernando, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Armand de Souza and D.R. Wijewardene founder of the Lake House Group of Newspapers. Yet the services of this brilliant civil and electrical engineer- a colossus who dwarfed those around him -were never acclaimed while he was still in public service . He had a rough exterior but was a sympathetic man who readily recognized the merit of others.
Born in Galwadugoda, Galle on September 17th ,1874 ,D.J was the son of Don Juan Devapura Jayasinghe Wimalasurendra, a master craftsmen and of Cecilia Jayawardena. Wimalasurendra senior represented Sri Lanka at a craftsmen exhibition in England and was invited to the Buckingham Palace , where he presented Queen Victoria with a device made of Ivory, which when mechanically operated spanned out into a coconut flower.
Highly impressed the Queen asked him what he wanted in return and he replied he wished to be a mudilayar. She then and there conferred on him the title. It was the first time in the colonial era the rank of mudilayar was conferred on a Sri Lankan by a reining British Monarc. Usually the rank was conferred with an appellation indicating the vocation of the recipient . No such distinction was made in the case of Mudaliyar Wimalasurendra.
His son , D.J was educated at Ananda College , Colombo and passed his Cambridge Senior with distinctions in pure and applied mathematics. Thereafter he joined the government factory as an apprentice engineer . Thereafter he joined the government factory as an apprentice engineer .As a boy he had made several mechanical gadgets which won him government awards . As a result the colonial rulers realized there was ample talent in the country and established an engineering branch at the Ceylon Technical College, Colombo. Young Wimalasurendra was among the first to join.
It was primarily due to his efforts that the colonial government in later years established the Ceylon Electrical Department (which during the post-independence era , became the first electricity board). Wimalasurendra who became its Chie Electrical Engineer , was later appointed the Department’s Deputy Diector.
He entered Faraday House , London in his middle age and passed the AMIEE examination being placed first in the first class. He covered the syllabus in less than half the time . The principal of Faraday House held him as an example to other students. (Faraday House was named after the English scientist who invented the first dynamo).
The Stanley Power House , which was Wialasurendra’s brainchild was named after Sri Lanka’s then British Governor Sir Herbert Stanley who ceremonially opened the power station. The hydro-electricity scheme at Black Pool , Nuwara Eliya and the Kandy Water Augmentation Scheme were Wimalasurendra’s pet projects.
Work on the Aberdeen-Laxapana scheme commenced in 1924 but was suspended 1927 due to unforeseen circumstances. The power house was constructed in 1938 and the work officially resumed on February 18th , 1940, a red letter day in our history. The then minister of communication and works , Major J. L. Kotalawala (Later Prime Minister Sir John) performed the opening ceremony . The first stage of the scheme was harnessing the Kehelgamu Oya to generate 25000 kilowatts of power . Although the project was expected to be completed within four years , the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 delayed the work.
In the 1950’s when the project was nearing completion Wimalasurendra’s was in the twilight years of his life . but the 75 year old retired electrical engineer was determined to see for himself the progress of the scheme initiated by him. Afterall he could not forget that day nearly 50 years ago when he watched the Laxapana- Aberdeen waterfall with the Boer prisoner while the two of them were testing the hill country’s soil for gold deposits, and this was the “GOLD” they discovered.
Visiting the project site Wimalasurendra boarded a trolley moving on tracks laid through the tunnel that was been constructed for chanelling water from the Kehelgamu Oya to Lakshapana . As the trolley carrying him emerged from the other end of the tunnel there was a loud cheering and applause from the crowd waiting there to greet him .
Addressing those present the veteran engineer said that although he was not so fortunate to supervise the completion of the project , he was glad to witness others completing the work he had begun thus realizing the dream he had half-century ago . He told those present that he was now ready to depart this world happily when the call came .
One of Wimalasurendra’s remarkable civil engineering feats was the “loop in the loop” at Demodara in the hill country. The European engineers summoned him when they found that they had to bore through 11 miles of hill’s and rocks to put the railway line- a formidable task. Wimalasurendra’s had a look around the place and reduced the milage to three and a half miles by having the “loop in the loop”.
It was he who designed the gold plated , gem studded pinnacle of the Ruwanmeli Seya and participated in the pinnacle laying ceremony. He did all this without any remuneration .
When Wimalasurendra was serving as District Engineer, Udapusellawa , he received a telegram fro the Lake House Chairman D.R Wijewardene asking for his assistance for operating a new rotary press that Wijewardene had bought . The British engineer who came to install the machine had failed to do the job properly causing it to deliver the newspapers in shreds. Wijewardene had consulted many engineers in Colombo and none of the could set it right.
As soon as Wimalasurendra arrived he had one look at the machine and called for its manual . Glancing through the book with a thinly disguised smile of sarcasm he merel fidgeted with some screws. The next moment the newspapers had come out at the rate of 40000 per hour!.
A little known fact about this remarkable man was that he was a Pali and German Scholar and translated Buddhist Text’s from Pali into German. These were highly appreciated at the time.
On August 10th 1953, Wimalasurendra- father of Sri Lanka’s hydroelectric power -passed away at the age of 78.