Thursday, November 19, 2015

With his brilliance and simplicity he touched the lives of many (M. P. Ranaweera writes about S. Mahalingam)

I was sad to hear of the passing away of Professor Mahalingam on November 3, in Jaffna, after a brief illness. He was the last surviving member of the pioneers of the Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, which was established in July 1950, as a part of the then University of Ceylon.

Maha, as he was affectionately called by his students and friends, was one of the most respected academics at the University of Peradeniya.

He was a great teacher, much loved by all his students, and brilliant researcher of international fame. He touched the lives of everyone he encountered all over the world.

Selvadurai Mahalingam had his secondary education in Malaya, and came to Ceylon in 1946 to obtain his university degree, as there was no university in Malaya at that time.

At that time Ceylon had a university, but no Faculty of Engineering offering engineering degrees. So he joined the Ceylon Technical College, Colombo, followed a degree course in engineering, and registered for an external degree of the University of London.

After obtaining his B.Sc. Eng. (first class) degree from the University of London, he joined the staff of the Faculty of Engineering, University of Ceylon, at its inception in July 1950 as an Assistant Lecturer.

He was one out of 12 academic staff of the Faculty of Engineering, under the capable leadership of the founder Dean, Prof. E.O.E. Pereira.

At that time the Department of Mechanical Engineering had only two academic staff members, none with post-graduate qualifications.

So Prof. Pereira wanted Maha to do graduate work in Mechanical Engineering, even though his London degree was in Civil Engineering.

He proceeded to the UK to do research at the University of Sheffield, and got his Ph.D. degree in 1956, working in the area of mechanical vibrations.

He also did some practical work on vibrations with Rolls Royce, and returned to Ceylon to become a Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering.

While shouldering a heavy teaching load, he also did pioneering research in mechanical vibrations, and established a research culture at the Faculty.

His seminal paper in the prestigious Journal of Applied Mechanics on the Holzer Method of Balancing in Vibration Control was highly acclaimed.

Later in association with Prof. R.E.D. Bishop at the University of London, he produced a series of papers of the highest international standard.

He did most of his research work while working at the Faculty of Engineering, and his work has been quoted in textbooks and journals.

I was fortunate to study under him, and also later to be closely associated with him as a colleague. As students we respected him very much; his lectures were clear, precise, and thought provoking.

His use of the blackboard was an example for others to follow, and whenever we approached him for clarification, the answers he gave showed that he was a master of the subject.

Under the guidance of academic staff like Maha, the Faculty produced brilliant engineering graduates many of whom have had successful careers in Sri Lanka and abroad.

They rose to the highest positions in the profession and in academia in their adopted countries, and their success has been a source of pride to the Faculty.

At the Faculty, we consulted him often for his advice on various matters, and his opinions were always valued and helpful. During the period I was Dean of the Faculty, I got him to produce a series of publications, the most important being the History of the Faculty of Engineering.

This classic work which covered the origins and the early period of the Faculty, was the first such document to be produced by any university in Sri Lanka, and it is still being referred by anyone writing such a document.

He also edited several important Faculty documents, including the Research in Engineering in 1970, and Memories of an Engineering Faculty in 2000, the latter for the Golden Jubilee of the Faculty.

For his research contributions, the University of London conferred him the D.Sc. in Engineering. That was the first earned engineering D.Sc. by any Sri Lankan, and it still remains the only such degree obtained by any Sri Lankan on research done while in Sri Lanka.

Because of this unique honour, the University of Ceylon created a personal chair in Applied Mechanics for him; the first such position created at the University, because until that time the only chairs available were cadre chairs.

During the 70s the university was short of funds for buildings, and Maha started the construction of the Applied Mechanics Lab, virtually using petty cash.

The normal practice then was to give the design and construction of buildings to outside contractors as the university only had a Maintenance Department for routine maintenance and supervision of building construction.

So Maha’s was a novel idea, which produced what was later called a “petty-cash building”. We did the structural designs at the Faculty, purchased building materials, hired direct labour, and supervised building construction. This saved much funds to the university and it got a quality product.

Maha also got the Faculty Workshops to make various mechanical equipment and demonstration models for teaching, without buying them from outside.

His Applied Mechanics Lab became the showpiece of the Faculty, and a ‘must visit’ place for any visitor. It can still compete with any such lab in Sri Lanka or abroad.

He also got some sectioned models of complicated machinery from outside using his contacts, and one such model – the jet engine he got from Rolls Royce – is the symbol of the Faculty of Engineering now.

Even though he was a researcher of highest international standards, Maha was a very simple and humble person. He avoided the limelight, and wanted to devote all his time to teaching and research.

He never wanted to be the Head of the Department or Dean of the Faculty, even though he was often the first choice for those positions. When the Government of Sri Lanka awarded the title VidyaJyothi to him in 2005, he was not very enthusiastic about it.

Professor Mahalingam retired from the Faculty in 1991, after continuously serving it for over 40 years, but continued to teach for several years after retirement.

In appreciation of his long, dedicated and outstanding service to the Faculty of Engineering and the University, the University of Peradeniya conferred him the title of Professor Emeritus, and in 2007, the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty Alumni Association (PEFAA) felicitated him.

He will be deeply missed.

- Munidasa P. Ranaweera