The would-be worldly acclaimed inventor and scientist Vladimir Shukhov was born in Gaivoron, Kursk gubernia, on August 16 (28 by the Julian calendar), 1853. After the family had moved to Petersburg, the youth went to a classical school, where he managed to prove the Pythagorean Theorem in his own way, even though he got a bad mark “for lack of modesty.” Then he studied, under the guidance of Zhukovsky, the founding father of aerodynamics, at the Moscow Imperial Technical School, where he invented the steam spray nozzle. This invention struck the great Mendeleev so much that he put a picture of it on the cover of his Foundations of Manufacturing Industry and the no less great Alfred Nobel obtained a patent on it.
Shukhov took interest in practical engineering when he visited, as best student, the Centennial International Exhibition in the US. Having seen the benefit that his country could derive from discoveries, he decided to devote himself to inventing. But he first worked in a railway drafting office and studied – on the advice of the famous surgeon Pirogov, his family’s friend, – at the Military Medical Academy. Undoubtedly, Shukhov’s talent developed when he began to work as chief designer and chief engineer at a company run by Alexander Bari, a Russian-born entrepreneur with an American grip. Working, on behalf of this firm, in Baku oil fields was the engineer’s first innovational step. After seeing oil puddles and hundreds of donkeys that carried the “black gold,” Shukhov became the first in the world to burn a liquid fuel by means of the spray nozzle that he invented. The scientist soon developed the principles of cracking, designed oil storage tanks and all kinds of pumps, gasholders, and factory metallic ceilings, which were strikingly cheap and reliable. Moreover, the inventor became the “father” of the bulk-oil fleet and the author of the first oil pipeline the principles of which are still adhered to now.
A SCIENTIST WHO CONQUERED THE WORLD
Worldwide fame came to Vladimir Shukhov in 1896 at the Nizhny Novgorod all-Russian exhibition. The roofs of the pavilions were doubly curved gridshells formed entirely of a lattice of straight angle-iron and flat iron bars. Four pavilions had a hanging overhead cover and another four had a cylindrical lattice ceiling with a tin membrane in the center.
The engineer was best known for a water tower, the world’s first vertical diagrid hyperboloid structure. Since then, hundreds of such towers have been built all over the world, for they are light, original, cheap, and practicable.
Shukhov had never stopped at what he achieved. In the early 20th century he designed hundreds of other structures, such as bridges, railway stations, factory shops, cooling towers, steam boilers, gas collectors, and water pipelines. His contribution to shipbuilding is just incredible: there were hyperboloid masts even on the battleship Emperor Paul I. Among the other noteworthy objects that have survived up to now are the world’s first revolving stage of the Moscow Art Theater, truss-supported metal framework for Moscow’s central department store and Petrovka Arcade, a wharf, and metal arch vaulting of Moscow’s Kievsky Railway Station. Each of these structures was at least half a century ahead of its time.
After the 1917 revolution Bari’s company was nationalized, and its workers elected their idol Shukhov as new manager. A 350-m-high radio station in Moscow was to be the engineer’s “swan song,” but, unfortunately, the country was short of metal. In spite of this, this project was approved with Lenin’s support, with the height being reduced to about 150 meters. The tower, built in 1922, was marvelous – much to the delight of artists. In particular, Aleksei Tolstoy wrote the novel Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid under the impression of this tower. The Burliuk brothers composed wonderful verses that call the tower a landmark in European avant-gardism.
Shukhov was extremely hard-working. For example, he designed in the 1920s, in a very short time, a 1,800-m line of multilayer hyperboloid electric transmission towers across the river Oka near Nizhny Novgorod. The engineer’s last invention was a project to stabilize a minaret of the 15th-century Madrasah Ulugh Beg in Samarkand, which deviated 1.5 meters from its axis as a result of an earthquake. The scientist proposed a special beam that could help the architectural monument regain balance. There was so much chat lately that Shukhov could have also “put the Pisa tower to its proper place,” but he was never invited to do so.
THE ENGINEER RESTORED THE MOSCOW ART THEATER AND LIKED MAKING FURNITURE
Shukhov was a thoroughly-developed personality: he played chess, was the Moscow champion in cycling, skated and skied; he liked reading poems, making furniture, and photographing. For this reason, among his friends were writers, actors, and artists.
It is perhaps in this milieu that he met his “first love” Olga Knipper, a famous Moscow Art Theater actress who later married Chekhov. Biographers believe that she inspired the scientist to draw up a project of the Art Theater reconstruction and build his famous fine-shaped water tower. Despite this, Shukhov was happy in marriage: his wife, an 18-year-old Anna Mezentseva, gave birth to two daughters and three sons. In the last years of his life, when he remained a widower, he feared for his children and had to leave his place of work. The engineer secluded himself, although, as an honorary member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, he had incredible possibilities. He refused himself everything, including the possibility of working abroad, and handed over all the invention rights, as well as royalties, to the state. Shukhov died in an accident on February 2, 1939.
“SHUKHOV’S UKRAINIAN STRUCTURES ARE PERHAPS IN A BETTER CONDITION THAN THE OTHER ONES”
The previous line is what Vladimir Shukhov Jr., president of the Shukhov’s Tower International Foundation of Science, Culture, and Art, said at the Moscow roundtable held to mark the 160th anniversary of his great-grandfather’s birth. Although Shukhov’s ideas have been implemented all over the word in the newer projects of well-known architects, such as Antonio Gaudi, Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and such modern-day diagrid enthusiasts as Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Santiago Calatrava, the structures are currently in an extremely critical condition. First of all, it is a unique structure of worldwide importance, the Shabolovka radio tower, which is on the verge of an accident-prone condition.
In Vladimir Shukhov’s view, his great-grandfather’s structures in Ukraine are in a better condition. This particularly applies to the Adziogol Lighthouse and a water tower in Mykolaiv, which the grateful staff has even immortalized in the company’s logo. Besides, the world’s first alley named after Shukhov was laid out here, and the city presented the other day an online 3D excursion (3dnikolaev.com) which is on a par with a similar trip to the Eiffel Tower.
Incidentally, among Shukhov’s first structures in Ukraine was the Lisychansk water tower (1896) which resembled, in terms of design, the engineer’s first hyperboloid. The engineer also designed a water tower in Yevpatoria, with multi-tier tanks, and some electric wind turbines. Undoubtedly, water towers were his most numerous projects, but only ten of them had survived in Ukraine by 2000 – in Bila Tserkva, Fastiv, Konotop, Cherkasy, Pomichna, Poltava, and Shostka. Much to our regret, some of them have been dismantled and scrapped in the past few years (fully in Poltava and partially in Fastiv).
Shukhov enthusiasts from all over the world and Vladimir Shukhov Jr., who deals with the preservation and protection of his great-grandfather’s heritage, believe that the “golden age” of science will come some day, and inventions of the world-famous scientist will play a crucial role in science and technology, in the development of the cutting-edge technologies which Shukhov, a man of genius, anticipated long ago.
Meanwhile, a Mykolaiv action group has set up a new chapter on the 3DMykolaiv resource, which allows everybody not only to see a 3D Shukhov’s Tower, but also to take a glimpse into its catacombs. The new online excursion started on a symbolic date – August 28 – the day of Vladimir Shukhov’s 160th birth anniversary.
Taras Kremin is a Candidate of Sciences (Linguistics)