Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

You name it, the Russians invented it

As far as inventions go, great minds often think alike at the same time, although they may be continents apart. According to the Russians, however, all the great inventions occured in Russia, thought up by Russians



Move over Marconi, radio was a Russian invention. As were television, the aeroplane, anaesthetic and a host of other things that are more commonly attributed to Western scientists.

That's at least what Russian reference books and museums tell us and what millions of people learned under the old Soviet education system, which tended to overlook work by foreigners in a given field.

A Russian emigrant to the US, Vladimir Zvorykin, is still honored as the "father of television" for his construction in 1923 of an iconoscope, or primitive television camera.

Yet there is scant reference to other scientists of the time who were instrumental in creating television as we know it today, like American Philo Farnsworth and Briton John Logie Baird.

And ask the man on the street about radio -- if you dare.

"The radio was invented by a Russian, Alexander Popov," Moscow road worker Nikolai replied, his eyes flashing defiantly. Any other claimants to the achievement are "imposters," he says.

The Wright brothers are globally credited with making the first human flight in 1903. But the Moscow Aviation Institute honors Alexander Mozhaisky as having built the first plane in 1882.

Unfortunately there is no firm documentation of a successful flight by the Russian's aircraft. Anecdotal evidence suggests it crashed.

In general, giving credit for many specific inventions is a can of worms. International sources say that Russian Alexander Lodygin made a graphite filament lightbulb in 1872, several years before Briton Joseph Swan and American Thomas Edison wrestled for the rights and international fame for one made with a carbon filament.

Yet patriots elsewhere might brand the Russian the upstart. Some accounts say German watchmaker Heinrich Gobel of New York made a light using a carbonized bamboo filament inside glass in 1854. Two years later, a French engineer reportedly patented his own design for an incandescent lamp with a platinum filament for coal mine workers.

"Very often great minds think alike," said Trevor Baylis, the British inventor of the wind-up radio.

"But to prove how simultaneous they are is extremely difficult, and that's what the patent filing system is supposed to be about," said Baylis, noting also that patents often inspire others to refine and improve ideas. "One invention tends to lead to another."

Now though, Russia's science community is much more open to debate. New editions of encyclopaedia increasingly avoid attributing inventions to one person alone, while museums that until recently enshrined Russian pre-eminence are cautiously revisiting history.

"We are gradually adopting the approach that technology is international and many things were invented in parallel," said Lidia Kozhenova, deputy science director at Moscow's Polytechnical Museum.

"On the other hand, we still try to give priority to our scientists for educational purposes and to maintain national pride."

Igor Lagovsky, editor of the journal Nauka i Zhizn (Science and Life), agrees that many things were developed rather than invented and that to honor one person cheats a number of rightful owners.

"Everyone contributed their share, Lodygin had his own type of lightbulb, Edison had his. It's all a joint effort," he said.

Some cracks are even appearing in the monumental radio issue.

To recap, Popov used his wireless telegraph to relay signals that were deciphered by Morse code as words in March 1896, a few months before Italian Guglielmo Marconi's transmitter sent actual audible words in a public demonstration.

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