Lonely Ideas

Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete?

Loren Graham
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 240
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    Lonely Ideas
    Book Description:

    When have you gone into an electronics store, picked up a desirable gadget, and found that it was labeled "Made in Russia"? Probably never. Russia, despite its epic intellectual achievements in music, literature, art, and pure science, is a negligible presence in world technology. Despite its current leaders' ambitions to create a knowledge economy, Russia is economically dependent on gas and oil. InLonely Ideas, Loren Graham investigates Russia's long history of technological invention followed by failure to commercialize and implement.For three centuries, Graham shows, Russia has been adept at developing technical ideas but abysmal at benefiting from them. From the seventeenth-century arms industry through twentieth-century Nobel-awarded work in lasers, Russia has failed to sustain its technological inventiveness. Graham identifies a range of conditions that nurture technological innovation: a society that values inventiveness and practicality; an economic system that provides investment opportunities; a legal system that protects intellectual property; a political system that encourages innovation and success. Graham finds Russia lacking on all counts. He explains that Russia's failure to sustain technology, and its recurrent attempts to force modernization, reflect its political and social evolution and even its resistance to democratic principles.But Graham points to new connections between Western companies and Russian researchers, new research institutions, a national focus on nanotechnology, and the establishment of Skolkovo, "a new technology city." Today, he argues, Russia has the best chance in its history to break its pattern of technological failure.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31738-2
    Subjects: History, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xii)

    Russians, particularly in Soviet times, have often claimed that they invented many of the most important technologies of modern civilization: the steam engine, the lightbulb, the radio, the airplane, the transistor, the laser, the computer, and many other devices and machines. Western commentators have ridiculed these claims.

    My recent research in Russian sources has revealed a big surprise. Russians did indeed build the first steam locomotive in continental Europe and the first operational diesel-powered locomotive in the world; they did first illuminate the avenues of major cities with electric lights; they did transmit radio waves before Guglielmo Marconi; they did...

  4. I The Problem:: Why Can’t Russia, after Three Centuries of Trying, Modernize?

    • 1 The Early Arms Industry: Early Achievement, Later Slump
      (pp. 3-16)

      The first quotation above would seem to indicate that in 1826, weapons production at the Tula arms factory, a leading armory of the Russian army, was the best in the world. The second quotation, twenty-nine years later, indicates that Russian troops in battle were using weapons that were entirely outclassed by those of their enemies at that time. How do we explain the difference?

      The sad irony is that in 1826, the Tula arms factorieswereamong the best in the world; however, in the decades immediately following, innovations made elsewhere in the manufacture of weapons were not implemented or...

    • 2 Railroads: Promise and Distortion
      (pp. 17-26)

      In 1833 a Russian craftsman named Miron Cherepanov came to Newcastle, England, to visit the railway factory of George Stephenson.⁴ Both Cherepanov and Stephenson were pioneers in developing steam engines and locomotives. Stephenson (with his son Robert) and Cherepanov (with his father Efim) would build dozens of steam engines in their lives. Just four years before Cherepanov visited the Newcastle factory Stephenson had demonstrated theRocket, often called the first successful train engine in history.⁵ Back home in Russia, Cherepanov would in the following year, 1834, build the first locomotive on the European continent to be made in its own...

    • 3 The Electrical Industry: Failed Inventors of the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 27-40)

      An impressive group of electrical engineers appeared in the last fifty years of tsarist Russia, some of the most notable being Aleksandr Lodygin, Pavel Yablochkov, and Aleksandr Popov. They were a part of a movement in Russia that led to the establishment of electrical engineering institutions just a few years after the very first in the world.² It is often said that the world’s first courses of study in electrical engineering were given at MIT in 1882, at Cornell in 1883, and in the same year at the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany. Russia was not far behind. In...

    • 4 Aviation: A Frustrated Master, a Deformed Industry
      (pp. 41-46)

      Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972) was a creative aviation pioneer whose life demonstrates the great promise that Russian technology has long held but that has not been fulfilled because of the social, political, and economic conditions of Russia.¹ Like many of the great technological innovators of the twentieth century he was originally an outsider, a college dropout who relied on his own resources to promote his inventions. Borrowing money from his family of modest means, in the first years of the twentieth century, just a few years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, Sikorsky built in his father’s garden...

    • 5 Soviet Industrialization: The Myth That It Was Modernization
      (pp. 47-60)

      Although the Soviet Union was a failure as a political and economic system, many people even today consider its industrialization and modernization program a success. They see that a predominantly peasant and agrarian nation was transformed into an industrial power of world standing. And, after all, the Red Army was able to match and overcome the technological might of Hitler’s armies. The Soviet Union built up an industrial system that made it at one point the second largest economy in the world. On Soviet soil during the Five-Year Plans launched before World War II there arose the world’s largest steel...

    • 6 The Semiconductor Industry: Unheralded and Unrewarded Russian Pioneers
      (pp. 61-68)

      Semiconductors are at the heart of the revolution in electronic devices during the last sixty years. Transistors are types of semiconductors, and transistors are now used by the billions in communication, computer, and other devices, having long ago replaced most vacuum tubes of earlier years. They are excellent in regulating and amplifying electrical currents. Transistors have many advantages over tubes in most applications because of their small size, reliability, efficiency, and low cost. Semiconductor technology has boosted the intellectual power of humans much as the steam engine improved their physical capabilities. And just as the steam engine was probably the...

    • 7 Genetics and Biotechnology: The Missed Revolution
      (pp. 69-74)

      In the 1920s a talented group of biologists in Russia was laying the foundations for what could have been a brilliant school of genetics leading to molecular biology, a field that has transformed biological science and biotechnology worldwide. After an outstanding start, Russia played almost no role in this revolution, and although currently it is making great efforts to catch up, it still lags far behind. The reason for this momentous failure after great early promise was almost entirely political. For a few brief years, however, Soviet Russia was at the forefront of genetics research. Russian biologists helped create the...

    • 8 Computers: Victory and Failure
      (pp. 75-80)

      Russians were active very early in the development of calculating devices, information theory, and computers. Even before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian engineers and scientists made important advances in this field. The Russian naval engineer and mathematician Alexei Krylov (1863–1945) was interested in applying mathematics to problems of shipbuilding. In 1904 he built a machine to solve differential equations. Another younger engineer, Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich (1888–1940), working in the same city, St. Petersburg, was studying vacuum tube development for radios. Around 1916 he invented one of the very first flip-flop relays based on an electronic circuit with two...

    • 9 Lasers: Genius and Missed Opportunities
      (pp. 81-90)

      In April 1955 a physics professor at Columbia University in New York City named Charles Townes journeyed to a scientific meeting in Cambridge, England, where he wanted to talk about the research he had been doing on stimulated microwave radiation. About a year earlier, Townes, working together with several graduate students in Pupin Hall at Columbia University, had successfully demonstrated such radiation in a device in which ammonia molecules were bombarded with microwaves. The result was an output of only several billionths of a watt, but it showed that the device worked. Townes had made a breakthrough.

      Together with his...

    • 10 The Exceptions and What They Prove: Software, Space, Nuclear Power
      (pp. 91-98)

      The software industry is one in which Russia in recent years has had definite success, although its total software industry is much smaller than that of some other developing countries, such as India. Three different types of software industry have been successful in Russia: offshore programming, packaged software, and software R&D centers in Russia belonging to foreign companies such as Google, Intel, and Samsung. In addition, Russia has a successful search engine, Yandex, which provides services similar to Google’s. (I often use it for Russian language searches and find it satisfactory but less sophisticated than Google for advanced searches.) More...

  5. II What Are the Causes of the Problem?

    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 99-102)

      How does one explain the pattern of impressive technological invention in Russia followed, again and again, by failure to develop and sustain that invention as a true innovation? We have seen that pattern in the arms industry, where Tula in the seventeenth century and again in the early nineteenth had one of the most impressive weapons-producing centers in the world; in railways, where in 1847 American engineers said the Alexandrovskii works in St. Petersburg were the most modern they had ever seen; in the electrical industry, where London and Paris in the 1870s were dazzled by the “Russian lamps” that...

    • 11 The Attitudinal Question
      (pp. 103-108)

      One of the factors limiting Russian efforts in technology is attitudinal. It is difficult to analyze, cannot be measured in economic terms, and is even somewhat speculative, yet it may be the most important of all. Russians have never to the present day fully adopted the modern view that making money from technological innovation is an honorable, decent, and admirable thing to do. In the nineteenth century, throughout the Soviet period, and still today,biznes, or “business,” has often been seen by Russians as a disreputable activity. Intellectuals (intelligenty) in particular saw (and often still see) commerce as below their...

    • 12 The Political Order
      (pp. 109-112)

      The political problem has been, in a word, one of authoritarianism. The tsars, the leaders of the Communist Party, and now the leaders of post-Soviet “sovereign democracy” (which is not democracy at all) have determined the policies that govern technological development, often ignoring market forces and “best practices” that, in at least many instances, governed the development of technology elsewhere. Of course, Russia is not the only country in the world to follow mistaken policies in technological development; similar instances of unfortunate policies can be found in all industrialized countries in the world, including Germany, the United States, and Japan,...

    • 13 Social Barriers
      (pp. 113-118)

      Innovation is increased in society by social and geographic mobility, by the ability to live where one wants, seeking the best location and resources for certain types of technological and economic activity. Silicon Valley in California, the Route 128 high-technology corridor around Boston, and similar spots in Israel, Great Britain, and other democratic countries did not result from people being directed by their governments to go there but instead flourished from the decisions of talented people that those were the best places to be for what they wanted to do. Of course, democratic governments help foster innovation in certain locations,...

    • 14 The Legal System
      (pp. 119-126)

      The body of law on inventions, usually called patent law, is a turgid subject attracting relatively few historians or social analysts.¹ However, beneath the legal technicalities and obscure definitions is a subject of prime importance to modern countries, for it forces one to articulate important questions: how well does society encourage and reward innovation among its citizens, and how well does it protect inventors? Throughout its history, Russia has never adequately rewarded or protected its most innovative citizens.

      Tsarist Russia was an autocracy. The tsar as autocrat (samoderzhavets) saw himself as the source of all power, whether wielded directly or...

    • 15 Economic Factors
      (pp. 127-130)

      The lack of an adequate patent law system throughout Russia’s history has been such an obvious obstacle to commercialization of technology that some people may conclude it is the most important of all problems. One recent popular author called the patent system “the most powerful idea in the world,” describing it as a system that in Abraham Lincoln’s words “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”² However, this elevation of the patent system to the status of the single greatest spur to innovation is an exaggeration. The legal protection of inventions is only one of many impetuses...

    • 16 Corruption and Crime
      (pp. 131-134)

      Russia is among the most corrupt nations in the world. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, in 2011 Russia placed 143rd out of 180 countries.¹ The practice of paying off officials is not new; in tsarist times corruption was even legal at many moments, since bribes paid to local officials were often seen as their major source of income. There was even a word for this way of maintaining a bureaucracy:kormleniia, or “feedings.” It is true that certain rulers, such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, tried to combat the practice, but until...

    • 17 The Organization of Education and Research
      (pp. 135-142)

      What is the optimal way of organizing research and development in order to achieve industrial innovation? Although no one knows the answer to this question with certainty, I argue that Russia has not been in step with world trends in organizing knowledge expansion and consequent technological progress, and it has paid a heavy price for this mistake. Misled by some European developments at the beginning of the twentieth century, it created a system that is strong in promoting theoretical science but very weak in translating that knowledge into industrial applications. The organizational causes of this weakness are still poorly understood...

  6. III Can Russia Overcome Its Problem Today?: Russia’s Unique Opportunity

    • 18 Creating New Foundations and Research Universities
      (pp. 145-148)

      The Russian government, observing what it considered to be the success of research in the United States supported by entities such as the National Science Foundation, broke with the exclusive Soviet tradition of block funding of scientific institutions from above and created new science and technology foundations using the grant system. These new institutions relied on applications from individuals or groups of scientists who wished to pursue research on specific problems, a departure from the old Soviet tradition of central government direction of science. It is difficult for Westerners, long accustomed to peer-reviewed grant systems, to realize what such a...

    • 19 RUSNANO (Nanotechnology) and Skolkovo (a New Technology City)
      (pp. 149-160)

      In recent years the Russian government has launched several programs aimed specifically at high technology, the largest and best known of which are RUSNANO, an effort to capture the promise of nanotechnology, and Skolkovo, an effort to create in a newly constructed technology city a Russian version of Silicon Valley.

      A significant change in technology worldwide has come from a new ability to manipulate matter on the molecular scale, or nanotechnology. The instruments that make this possible include scanning tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes, along with other rapidly developing methods. In recent years there has been a great deal...

    • 20 How Russia Could Break Out of Its Three-Centuries-Old Trap
      (pp. 161-164)

      Can Russia, after several centuries of trying to modernize itself in a sustainable way, finally solve its problem? In principle, of course it can. Other countries have done it. Japan modernized a traditional society in less than a century. More recently, South Korea turned the trick in about forty years. Both Japan and South Korea are major players today in international high technology in a way that Russia is not.

      The Soviet Union prohibited entrepreneurial capitalism and was committed to an alternative economic and political system. The disappearance of that regime provides Russia with the greatest opportunity in its history...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 165-168)
    Loren Graham
  8. Chronology
    (pp. 169-172)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 173-190)
  10. Glossary of Names
    (pp. 191-194)
  11. Index
    (pp. 195-204)
  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)