Search billions of records on


Deshabandu Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe

Deshabandu Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe Deshabandu Dr. A. N. S. Kulasinghe bestrode the stage of Sri Lankan engineering practice over the past half century like a colossus, quite in contrast to his diminutive physical stature. He is a household name in our country - a feat rarely achieved by engineers, whose indispensable contributions to society are almost always shrouded in anonymity. He demonstrated pioneering leadership and remarkable ingenuity in many fields of engineering, displaying a virtuosity that is hardly ever seen in these days of ultra specialisation.

Dr. Kulasinghe was at the helm of four great institutions in their heyday. His career started at the Colombo Port Commission (CPC) in the 1940s, where he ended up as Port Commissioner in 1968, the first non Civil Service person to hold the post.

He was Founder Chairman and General Manager of the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) from 1962, and many are the eminent structural engineers who came under his tutelage in their formative years at the SEC. He was appointed Chairman of the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) in 1978, from which position he presided over the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project, a project that rekindled pride in our engineering skills and harked back to our glorious heritage of directing Lanka's water resources towards the needs of her people. In the same year, he was appointed Founder Chairman of the National Engineering Research and Development (NERD) Centre, where innovation informed by theoretical insight has resulted in some very impressive appropriate technology.

Apart from these aspects of his illustrious career, Dr. Kulasinghe made many contributions through learned society activities. He was President of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka in 1969, General President of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in 1970, Vice President of the Federation Internationale de la Precontrainte (FIP) in 1981 and President of the National Academy of Sciences in 1987.

Although Dr. Kulasinghe's prodigious output virtually defies classification, his main structural engineering exploits (which I shall focus on) can be broadly grouped into three areas, namely prestressing, shell structures and appropriate technology. Dr Kulasinghe introduced prestressing to Sri Lanka even before the technology had crossed the Atlantic from Europe to America.

The great advantage in having tension free (and hence crack free) concrete in the harsh marine environment of the Colombo Port would certainly have given him the impetus to develop this technology. The Kulasinghe-CPC prestressing system that he developed was widely used for tensioning and anchoring up to 12 wires in a single anchorage. Prestressing however could not be confined within the boundaries of the Port Commission: it runs like a golden thread (or should I say strand) through much of Kulasinghe's work.

It was used for correcting the corner droop problem in umbrella type hyperbolic paraboloid shell roofs (to be seen at the Ports Authority car park); and also for stringing together discrete truss panels into concrete Vierendeel-type trusses (visible in the Institution of Engineers Auditorium). It is curious that Kulasinghe's father was named Eugene, the very same name borne by Eugene Freyssinet, the French engineer who invented prestressing.

Shell structures are a joy to behold - possessing geometries that bestow counter-intuitive strength and stiffness to their slender walls; the eggshell is a good example from nature. Our ancients, great structural engineers in their own right, knew nothing of shell structures. Their dagobas and chaithyas were solid brick structures.

Kulasinghe injected modern technology into these ancient forms to give them new life. His chaithyas, at Kalutara and Kotmale, are hollow domes, and yet able to carry the heavy loads from the square chamber and spire. These structures, along with the folded plate structure of the Colombo Planetarium, the Buddha Jayanthi Chaithya at the Colombo Port and the tension shell roof at the NERD Centre Auditorium, add lustre to our built environment and pay tribute to their designer.

Research and development in appropriate technology was the main focus of latter part of Dr Kulasinghe's career, not only at the NERD Centre, but also in his own backyard at Ja-ela. His passion was to use innovative and technology-rich ideas to produce low cost building materials and elements. This approach is best epitomized by the double pitch asbestos roof that stands up without any timber framing, being designed on the basis of a tied arch.

Another example is the use of discrete hollow clay blocks in roof rafters - after they have been pretensioned together by a single strand running through them. His work at the NERD Centre also tended towards the use of cement and concrete products to replace either steel (which has to be imported to the country at the expense of our foreign exchange reserves) or timber (the supply of which is fast diminishing as a result of forest denudation).

Some of Kulasinghe's work has been documented in technical papers, published and read both at home and overseas. His presentations at international conferences brought him worldwide acclaim and enabled him to rub shoulders as an equal with the likes of Professor Guyon (who was Freyssinet's theoretician on prestressing), Californian consulting engineer T.Y. Lin (one of the best exponents of prestressed concrete), and Architect Eduardo Torroja (internationally renown for his shell structures).

It could be argued that the principle of eliminating the unnecessary (probably the flip side of detachment) is central to Buddhist philosophy, of which Dr. Kulasinghe was a serious student. This is perhaps why many of his structures appear to eliminate bending (which is such an inefficient state of stress) so that only axial or membrane stresses are left; and perhaps why he has eliminated or at least greatly reduced the need for formwork and falsework (once again such a wasteful construction input), in many of his structural systems and construction methods.

One of the guiding principles of Dr. Kulasinghe's career was that of national self reliance. Even his musical avocations were directed towards the mastery of the tabla, as opposed to a western instrument. His career began at the end of the colonial period; it has drawn to a close in an era of globalization and neo-colonialism, when everyone seems to think that what is imported is better than what is locally produced.

He must have been heartbroken when Sri Lanka turned towards foreign technology for prestressed concrete railway sleepers in the nineties, a technology he had home-grown in the seventies. In spite of this, he trod the often lonely path of innovation and self-reliance.

That in fact is the very appropriate title of the Kulasinghe Felicitation Volume produced by the Institution Engineers, Sri Lanka: "Innovation and Self-Reliance". The era of engineering in Sri Lanka covered by the volume is also called the "Heroic Age". Innovation then was the other driving force in his career. T.Y. Lin's well known text on prestressed concrete is dedicated "To engineers who, rather than blindly following the codes of practice, seek to apply the laws of nature". The editor of the Felicitation Volume speculates as to whether Lin could have had the young Kulasinghe in mind.

Younger engineers would do well to emulate Dr. Kulasinghe's commitment to lifelong learning. Although he started his career as a professionally qualified engineer, he sat for, and obtained a 2nd Class Upper for his final year engineering degree examinations in London after around 15 years of practice as an engineer - a stage at which most other practising engineers would have been completely out of touch with engineering theory.

It is undoubtedly this same commitment to learning that enabled him to successfully transfer prestressing technology to Sri Lanka from Europe, adding his own innovations to that technology in the process. Even till recent, he was a regular participant at the Society of Structural Engineers' Question Times; and a couple of years ago I saw his name on a joint paper reporting research results on slipformed walls tested at the University of Peradeniya. It must also be mentioned that he dabbled in mechanical engineering (wood gassification), chemical engineering (biogas digesters), electrical engineering (linear induction motors) and even automobile engineering (fuel saving devices).

Many are the honours that have been bestowed upon A.N.S. Kulasinghe. The national honour "Vidya Jyothi Class 1" was conferred upon him in 1986. Last year he was honoured with a "Deshabandu" title. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Moratuwa (in 1980) and the Open University (in 2000). As stated before, the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) issued a felicitation volume in his honour in 2001. Most of this appreciation is gleaned from a citation I prepared when the Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka made him an Honorary Fellow in 2003.

In 1979 Dr. Kulasinghe endowed the University of Moratuwa with an award in his name for the best Civil Engineering graduate, to be presented at the annual convocation. Recently, when the university decided to convert such awards to gold medals, he responded again with a generous contribution, despite his ailing health and attendant expenses. I had the great privilege of meeting him, as it happened just 3 days before his demise, to thank him in person. His movements were slow but his mind as agile as ever at 87 years of age, and still focused on his three main areas of interest.

He was anxious that I see for myself his prestressing exploits embodied in some factory buildings that had been erected in record time. He bemoaned the fact that engineers were reluctant to design shell structures and felt that at least our engineering faculties should commission such structures. Finally, he was concerned that research institutes continue to be staffed with those having a genuine interest in research; and also that university academics who do have such interest are exposed to engineering practice - where they would find a rich vein of problems to tackle. He spoke also of his two engineer sons, far away in Aberdeen, but very supportive of his inventions and patents. His wife, probably his most ardent supporter, predeceased him by almost 20 years.

His was and is a hard act to follow; an engineer sans pareil (without equal), as the IESL felicitation volume describes him. May his life and work be an inspiration for us to try.

Prof. Priyan Dias - University of Moratuwa

Dr. A. N. S. Kulasinghe - Philosopher of Technology, Non Pareil

Dr. A. N. S. Kulasinghe

THE HISTORY OF ENGINEERING in Sri Lanka is the general theme under which the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka embarked on the ambitious task of documenting engineering history in Sri Lanka in Felicitation volumes to honour the living, and Commemoration volumes to honour engineers who have passed away. The first volume in the series published in 1989, was A History of the Railway, felicitating Mr. B. D. Rampala. The second was the Kulasinghe Felicitation volume Innovation and Self Reliance, published in 2001. The third was a Commemoration volume Water for People and Nature honouring S. Arumugam in 2003, three years after he had passed away in London.

When the Kulasinghe Felicitation Volume, was being prepared it was pointed out by the Editor Dr. A. P. Jayasinghe , a mechanical engineer who had worked with him in the State Engineering Corporation, that this volume could not do justice to the phenomenal contributions made by Dr. Kulasinghe in the development of engineering science and technology in modern Sri Lanka. It was therefore agreed to request Dr. Kulasinghe to also prepare for publication his Memoirs as a statement and record of his own life as an engineer, to complement the Felicitation volume in the History of Engineering in Sri Lanka series. This was completed but not published at the time of his death on February 14, 2006.

In the Felicitation volume Arthur C Clarke in his Foreword "Innovation and Self Reliance" said that "Dr. Kulasinghe was at once the thinker and experimenter, an unusual combination in any area of science".  In his Foreword in the Kulasinghe Memoirs, Professor Carl Mitcham, a former President of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, and author of Thinking through technology, the path from engineering to philosophy, discusses two aspects of the Philosophy of Technology. With emphasis on philosophy, it is the Humanities Philosophy of Technology (HPT)  , and with emphasis on engineering, it is the Engineering Philosophy of Technology (EPT) . He said : "the very concept of technology remains to be clarified by thinkers and technologists working together". This suggested Philosopher of Technology, as a title for the Kulasinghe Memoirs, the "thinker and experimenter" as Arthur C Clarke described him, with the sub-title Self Reliance and Innovation, his most dominant characteristics.

Professor Carl Mitcham's authoritative and informative Foreword is titled Philosophical Perspectives on Engineering and Technology. Professor Ananda Guruge's Preface on Science and Technology in Ancient Sri Lanka, justifies an observation made by a member of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), as follows : "The practice of self - reliance followed by the ancient Lankans, with their stupendous achievements, was resuscitated by Dr. A. N. S. Kulasinghe who proved to the world the technical excellence of the engineering profession in modern Sri Lanka".

In the Introduction  to the Kulasinghe Felicitation volume - Innovation and Self Reliance, there are references to Creativity, and split brain analysis, the Chinese concept of yin and yang, and the mental duality described as classic and romantic thinking, in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', a 1960's best-seller, quoted from again below. An Epilogue  in that volume titled 'A Trajectory of Development', has extracts from Bhikkhu Bodhi's centenary address to the YMBA, titled 'Facing the Future', of which the following is relevant and instructive :

"A developed country is understood to be one in which the economy is driven by the application of high technology to industrial production and commercial services. The trajectory of development is defined by both vertical and horizontal axes: the vertical axis is innovation in techniques and products, the horizontal axis expansion in production and distribution".

Both Bhikkhu Bodhi's analysis of the trajectory of development, and the two perspectives described by Professor Mitcham as the Humanities philosophy of technology HPT, and the Engineering philosophy of technology EPT, are evident in any examination of Kulasinghe's work.  There is a fine balance in all his inventions throughout his life, of HPT motivated, even inspired, by social need in Sri Lanka, a poor developing country, and EPT, supported by his creative technical genius.

Despite all this, a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to harass Kulasinghe in 1970.  This led to his resignation and departure from the country, leaving a large void in engineering, and the philosophy of innovation and self reliance. (In passing, I think government has made amends, even belatedly after his death, with a funeral under State patronage). There is a whole chapter in the Felicitation volume Innovation and Self Reliance, titled  'Tribute to a Genius' reproduced from the Journal of the State Engineering Corporation at the time. Those unfortunate events bring to mind a tribute to the architect Sir Christopher Wren, to the effect that if you wanted a monument to the man, "Look around you!" Quoting this in a local context a speaker had added "But if you want to remember him best, look within you, to see what he did for you!"  Engineers who worked with Kulasinghe looked within themselves at that critical time when he left the country for Malaysia in 1971. They would have done so again after the advent of the Robber barons after 1977.

The following comments by Professor William H Cropper about Michael Faraday  are also apposite:

"The twentieth-century philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox,' in which he classified thinkers as foxes or hedgehogs: foxes know many things, while hedgehogs know one big thing. Faraday was both. As an experimentalist, he learned all the things mentioned and a lot more (Bence Jones lists twenty-two topics pursued by Faraday in his electrical researches alone). But as a theorist, he learned and taught one great thing: that the forces of nature are all interconnected.

"Our account may give the impression that Faraday was first an experimentalist and then a theorist, in separate scientific lives, so to speak. But there was only one scientific life, a highly creative interplay between the experiments and the theoretical speculations. The experiments suggested the theories, and the theories guided the experiments. Neither endeavour would have succeeded without the other. This ability to work in the theoretical and experimental realms simultaneously and creatively is a rare gift. Only a few of the physicists in this book, perhaps only Newton and Fermi in addition to Faraday, had it. Einstein, Gibbs, Maxwell, Boltzmann, and Feynman were in the first rank of theorists, but not creative experimentalists".

There is some similarity with Dr. Kulasinghe, whose first love had been physics but who took to a civil engineering career (forsaking even electrical engineering) because of need for employment in the war years. He 'knew many things', in many branches of engineering, and despite working all his life in this small country, he became world famous on account of 'one big thing', pre-stressed concrete design and construction based on the Kulasinghe - CPC system that he invented. And, as Arthur C Clarke said : "He was at once the thinker and experimenter - an unusual combination in any area of science".

The balance between the humanities and engineering perspectives of technology varies from project to project, as can be imagined. Among numerous examples described in the Kulasinghe Felicitation volume, Innovation and Self Reliance, Isaiah Berlin's one big thing illustrates this best: invention and development of the Kulasinghe CPC pre-stressing system, and its application in the design and construction of a number of concrete shell structures. 

In his Convocation Address as Chief Guest at the University of Moratuwa, in 1998, referring to this invention in the Colombo Port Commission department which he joined in 1944 Dr. Kulasinghe said :

Most of the roofs of warehouses, workshops and similar structures had been built in structural steel except the very old ones, which were built in timber. The steelwork was subject to corrosion with increased maintenance costs. All the steel had to be imported at high cost. There was, therefore, an urgent need to find an alternative in view of the post-war development works planned, which included large span warehouses and bridges.

Referring again to the Introduction in Innovation and Self Reliance, the following is relevant:

The application of pre-stressed concrete technology in the CPC received a temporary set-back when the Magnel Blaton system available at the time could not be used because royalty payments could not be authorized for a system that was not patented in this country. A less creative person may have found a way around the problem through an administrative solution. Kulasinghe's response was typical: he created his own technology, the Kulasinghe - CPC system.  (In passing we may note that he recognized the Colombo Port Commission, the original scene of his triumphs, rather than giving the patented system only his own name as other inventors of pre-stressing systems had done). 

In the invention of the Kulasinghe - CPC pre-stressing system the balance between the EPT and HPT perspectives as described by Professor Carl Mitcham in his Foreword, was rather even. The original motivation for the invention, as described in the above address, was within the definition of a HPT, whereas overcoming the problem as described above, was an outstanding innovative EPT solution. An early application of the invention, for manufacture of concrete railway sleepers, leaned towards the EPT or engineering perspective. (In passing, these sleepers were used on a few miles of Port Commission railway, but not on the Sri Lanka government railways on any systematic basis).

The most notable application of both EPT and HPT perspectives in pre-stressed concrete design and construction is seen in the early development of thin concrete shells for Port structures. Apart from Kulasinghe's own publications, this is comprehensively dealt with by one of his brilliant protégés, K. W. Upasena, in a chapter titled  'Development of Shell Structures in Sri Lanka' in Innovation and Self Reliance. Design and construction of 2 ˝ inch thick pre-stressed concrete shells in 100 ft. span warehouse roofs is best appreciated from the EPT or engineering perspective of the philosophy of technology. The magnitude of this achievement was dramatically demonstrated when the battery of warehouses with thin shell roofs in Galle harbour survived, unscathed, the full impact of the harbour waves (tsunami), of December 26, 2004, after having been totally submerged as well. There is again a fine balance of emphasis between the HPT and EPT perspectives in the strikingly beautiful Planetarium, a beautiful picture of which adorns the front cover of Innovation and Self Reliance.

The balance changes again in application of the technology for design and construction of thin shells in stupas, starting with the Varaya cetiya, with emphasis on the HPT or humanities philosophy of technology. The strikingly beautiful 100 ft. dia. Kalutara bodhi cetiya is another outstanding achievement even by Kulasinghe standards, where the HPT perspective is prominent. The Kotmale Maha Seya, a 200 ft. dia. 11 inch shell shows promise when completed of equaling or even surpassing the Kalutara cetiya as a living memorial to Kulasinghe's genius, like the monuments to Sir Christopher Wren in London.

It is appropriate at this point to write a few words on the Buddhistic concept of the stupa. Here, mention must be made of the Mihintale stupa, which unlike the others described above, is not a new construction, but a re-construction by Dr. Kulasinghe of an ancient stupa that is described in these Memoirs, and is also referred to by Dr. Ananda Guruge in the Preface to the Kulasinghe Memoirs.  This stupa commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, that has been given wide publicity especially in the west by Dr. C. G. Weeramantry, Vice President of the International Court of Justice in a famous Separate Opinion in the Gabcikovo - Nagymaros case (the Danube dam case) as follows: 

 "The ancient chronicles record that when the King (Devanampiya Tissa, 247 - 207 BC) was on a hunting trip (around 223 BC) the Arahant Mahinda, son of the Emperor Asoka of India, preached to him a sermon on Buddhism which converted the king. Here are excerpts from that sermon:

'O great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and move about in any part of the land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all living beings; thou art only the guardian of it'".

Two extracts from Samuel C Forman's The Existentialist Pleasures of Engineering are appropriate in this context, because Dr. Kulasinghe is also a chartered mechanical engineer and has many electrical engineering inventions to his credit; and moreover he is a practicing Buddhist:

"Every engineer has experienced the comfort that comes with total absorption in a mechanical environment. The world becomes reduced and manageable, controlled and unchaotic. For a period of time, personal concerns, particularly petty concerns, are forgotten, as the mind becomes enchanted with the patterns of an orderly and circumscribed scene. This state of mind is scorned by many humanists but in a way it is similar to the comfortable seclusion one feels when listening to a carefully constructed musical composition of the classic period. If such a state of mind comes to dominate one's life, then of course it can be said to be dehumanizing. But its absence from life deprives the individual of that 'getting-out-of-himself' which is an important part of the human adventure. Philosophers and religious thinkers are constantly talking about 'losing oneself' in the All, and then in the next breath of 'finding oneself' in some form of ecstasy. The emotional conditions are difficult to define verbally with any precision. But somewhere among the states of being sought by wise men falls that wondrous moment in which the engineer becomes absorbed with the machine……..

 "In his emotional involvement with the machine, the engineer cannot help but feel at times that he has come face to face with a strong but potent form of life. We have spoken already of the 'life' that the civil engineer encounters in the forces of nature. But with machines the situation is quite different. A manufactured device is obviously more 'artificial' than a river, and yet it can seem more alive. First of all, as poets keep reminding us, machines look like living things. 'The windmills, like great sunflowers on dried stalks, Stare hard at the sun they cannot follow.' They sound like living things. A turbine 'hums there softly, purring with delight.' They move like living things …………

  "When we speak of sensing life in the machine, we cannot literally conceive of a robot touched by a magic wand which quickens it into a living creature. We can think only in terms of the basic energy of the universe, which physicists (and philosophers) have told us is also matter -- one pulsing essence which is manifest everywhere. We encounter 'it' in forests, of course, and in clouds, and within ourselves. But as engineers, we also encounter 'it' repeatedly in the machines we design and manufacture and use. This intensifies our existential experience of the world. I have used the word 'it' to identify the basic energy-matter. There are other more graceful and meaningful terms that can serve. Robert M. Pirsig, in his intriguing book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, expresses the thought this way:

'The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha --- -which is to demean oneself'.

"To be totally immersed in the circuits of a computer, or the gears of a transmission, according to Pirsig, is to have access to that very peace of mind which is so often said to be unattainable to practitioners of technology. To follow Pirsig a little further on this, engineering work is seen to be a means of acquiring an inner peace of mind on three levels: physical quietness; mental quietness, 'in which one has no wandering thoughts...'; and value quietness, 'in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire...'

"This peace of mind is not only a consequence of working with machines, it is a means toward performing such work successfully, since it 'seems to draw out the inner tensions and frustrations that have prevented you from solving problems you couldn't solve before. . . .' "

In this context, an interesting example from Sri Lanka, that reflects the 'existential pleasures of engineering', is seen in the re-erection of the Maligawila Buddha statue, the tallest free standing Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, that had been vandalized long ago, and was lying broken on the ground, for years. The pieces were put together and the statue re-erected in a difficult engineering exercise, as described in the Kulasinghe Felicitation volume, Innovation and Self Reliance Innovation and Self Reliance, Kulasinghe Felicitation volume.

"The most prestigious mechanical engineering undertaking of recent times was the re-erection of the Maligawila Buddha statue. It is fitting that this major task was accomplished under the guidance of the founder Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation, Dr. A. N. S. Kulasinghe"

Dr. Gamini Kulatunga contributed an interesting comment in a discussion on this, recently:

"When Buduruwagala statue was in pieces (by treasure hunters?) the villagers venerated the pieces by offering medicinal preparations (healing the broken Buddha).  Now that it has been 'restored', local - and foreign - tourists go to see (not to venerate) it and compare its height etc., with that of Avukana. (Similarly) How many of the present day children look after the parents when they are sick and old?  They may rather want them restored in a private hospital, or conserved in a home for the aged, and finally preserved in the family burial grounds".

In conclusion, another extract from Professor Cropper's life of Michael Faraday is as follows:

"At home, Faraday's wife, Sarah, was in some ways as remarkable as her husband.  More than any one else, she was the steadying influence that kept the Faraday volcano of energy under control. Williams gives us this picture of her indispensable role in Faraday's life:

'Sarah Barnard was a perfect mate for Faraday. From his accounts and from accounts of others, she emerges as a warm and charming person. She was filled with maternal feelings which, in the absence of children of her own, she lavished upon her nieces and upon Faraday himself. This was precisely what Faraday needed. Oftentimes he would become so absorbed in his work in the laboratory that he would forget his meals. Quietly Mrs. Faraday would serve him and see that his health did not suffer' "

We may conclude that Dr. Kulasinghe's long and productive life owed much to his loving wife Dulcie, who played an indispensable role, as Faraday's wife had done for her husband: We can say that "She emerges as a warm and charming person… filled with maternal feelings" who (unlike Mrs. Faraday) brought up two talented sons who rose to very high positions, internationally, in the field of petroleum engineering, even though she passed away comparatively early in her life, in 1985.

The writer is the Editor of  'Kulasinghe Memoirs'
General Series Editor History of Engineering in Sri Lanka series
Institution of Engineers,
Sri Lanka

Written By: D. L. O. Mendis - Weekend Standard, Sat Feb 25 2006