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Prominent Russians: Ivan Kulibin

April 10, 1735 – July 30, 1818
Ivan Kulibin Ivan Kulibin

Ivan Kulibin was a Russian inventor whose name has become synonymous with self-taught inventors and people keen on mechanics or engineering.

Kulibin was born into a merchant's family in the town of Nizhny Novgorod. A local psalmist taught him to read, write, and count, and this was the only education he received aside from his own efforts to teach himself. His father, Pyotr Kulibin, wanted him to become a merchant, and accordingly made him work as a vendor, but the young Kulibin was more interested in mechanics and reading than in the family business. He turned his room into a workshop, made mechanical toys and tools for the household and for sale, and dreamed about becoming an engineer.

Pyotr Kulibin did not approve of his son’s unusual hobby, as mechanics had nothing to do with flour trading. But he changed his mind when Ivan proved his talent by designing a hydraulic machine to turn the plant-filled water-basin in Kulibins’ garden into a running-water pond where fish could live and breed.

A clock for the Empress

Once while in Moscow, Kulibin bought some tools for clock-making. There were no clock makers in Nizhny Novgorod, and Kulibin willingly became one. After mastering the necessary skills and gaining a good reputation among the town citizens, he decided to make a special clock to present to the Empress, Catherine II. To many, this seemed like an unrealizable wish, but one of his father’s acquaintances, Mikhail Kostromin, learned about Kulibin’s intention and believed in him. 

In 1764, Kostromin gave Kulibin money to buy the necessary tools and materials for the clock, and agreed to financially support him and his assistants. When the Empress arrived in Nizhny Novgorod in 1767, the clock had not been completed yet, but Kulibin showed her his other crafts: a microscope, two telescopes, and an electric engine. Catherine was impressed, and ordered the mechanic and his sponsor to come to St. Petersburg when the clock was finished and to bring Kulibin’s works with them. Kulibin and his workshop moved to the Russian capitol in 1769.

The clock Kulibin presented to the Empress was really one of a kind. Its mechanism consisted of 427 tiny parts. It was in the shape of a goose egg with a mechanical theater inside. Every hour, the egg opened and small mechanical figures inside performed the Resurrection scene from the Bible: an angel descended to the Holy Sepulcher, where he surprised and frightened the guards and met The Three Marys. At noon, the clock played a cantata, dedicated to Catherine and composed by Kulibin himself. The clock is the only piece of Kulibin’s work which has not been lost, and now it can be seen in the State Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Kostromin returned to his home town with a large sum of money, a silver mug given to him by Catherine II "for the generous support of Kulibin’s talents”, and the useful reputation of a patron of science. Kulibin stayed in the capital, as he was assigned to head the workshops of the Academy of Sciences. These workshops supplied nearly the entire country with astronomical, physical, and navigational tools and instruments.

Mark of a genius

In 1772, Kulibin read in a newspaper that the British government was offering a prize to design a single-span bridge. Kulibin took the advertisement as a challenge and designed a 298-meter-long bridge over the Neva River. He sent his calculations to the famous German mathematician Leonhard Euler to check, and Euler published flattering reviews on Kulibin's work.

Kulibin was not the only Russian inspired by the newspaper advertisement. He had at least two rivals, and both of them failed. When on December 27, 1776, the 1:10 replica of Kulibin's bridge was to be tested, the majority of the Academy members did not believe it would pass.

After the replica withstood the necessary weight, Kulibin walked across the bridge himself and invited all the workers and witnesses to join him. The project was a success. Catherine II generously paid Kulibin, and the model was placed in the Tauride Garden, where the Empress liked to take walks. Dmitry Zhuravsky, the well-known Russian engineer of the 19th century, said that Kulibin’s brainchild had "the mark of a genius" on it.

It is not known exactly why Kulibin didn't get the British reward, but it is known for sure why the bridge was not built: the technology did not yet exist to build the bridge to Kulibin’s specifications. As many other inventors, Kulibin was too far ahead of his time.

This bridge was to be made of wood. Many years later, in 1813, Kulibin designed a metal one and this project remained on paper for the same reasons.

Mechanical legs

Выезд  самокатки  Кулибина One of Kulibin's inventions - foot-powered cart

In 1775, the Empress offered Kulibin nobility upon the sole condition that the inventor had to shave his remarkable beard and change his taste in clothes - Kulibin preferred traditional Russian clothing over European. Kulibin refused. Catherine approved his decision and awarded him a special golden medal and the right to participate in court festivities.

In 1779, Kulibin designed what can be called a searchlight. With a system of mirrors, one candle could shine as brightly as half a thousand of them. Searchlights of different sizes were used for different purposes: for example, large ones were placed in lighthouses, smaller ones lighted factories and workshops, and the smallest served as headlights for carriages. Gavriil Derzhavin, the most well-known poet of his time, even dedicated a poem to Kulibin's invention, comparing it to the moon.

In 1791, Kulibin made the acquaintance of a young officer named Nepeitsyn, who had lost his leg in the Russian-Turkish war. This traumatic incident made him give up his military career and his dreams of a happy marriage. Kulibin decided to help his new friend, and designed a "mechanical leg" for Nepeitsyn. According to his notes, the officer quickly learned how to use it and even how to walk on it without a stick. Soon, Nepeitsyn returned to military service. In 1812, he took part in the war against Napoleon, and was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Inspired by this success, Kulibin kept working in this field, and in 1794 he made a prosthetic leg for Valerian Zubov, the brother of Catherine II’s favorite at the time. This prosthesis was lighter and more mobile, as Kulibin had improved the technology.

When Kulibin sent the drafts and the models of his invention to the Academy of Medicine and Surgery, “the mechanical legs” were considered innovative and approved by the medics. Unfortunately, in 1800, while Kulibin was still working to improve his prosthesis, an Englishman named Pote patented a similar one. Some historians say, the technology had been stolen. 

Ahead of his time

Ivan Kulibin Ivan Kulibin

In 1791, Kulibin designed a foot-powered cart, which could be considered the prototype of an automobile. It used a servant to turn the pedals in place of an engine, but its mechanism included such details as a transmission gearbox, a steering gear, and a brake unit consisting of two springs. However, it did not gain any popularity and was not mass produced.

In 1793, he designed an elevator for the Winter Palace. Some elements of his mechanism are used in contemporary elevators. Unlike the foot-powered cart, the "lifting armchair" was a great source of entertainment for Catherine and the courtiers, and so were the fireworks Kulibin organized for the royal parties. The inventor wrote many articles about pyrotechnics.

The color light telegraph Kulibin invented in 1794 was to become the fastest way of communication at the time, but the project was put on hold and completely forgotten. In 1835, the Russian government bought the same technology from France.

In 1801, Kulibin quit his job in the Academy and returned to his hometown. There, living by the Volga River, he continued his studies, and created a "water-walker" - a vessel, which could go against the river current using the power of the stream to move. The first ship of this kind successfully passed all his tests, though it had some significant drawbacks and was expensive to build and maintain. The drafts of the “water-walker” designs met their fate buried in the drawers of the Nizhny Novgorod bureaucrats.

At the end of his life, Kulibin, as many other inventors of the past, became obsessed by the idea of the perpetuum mobile, or a perpetual motion machine. He spent all his money attempting to build one, and died in poverty. He was married three times and had eleven children, but none of them followed in his footsteps and became an inventor. However, his ideas inspired many other scientists, and his works served as prototypes for many creations designed long after his death.

Written by Olga Pigareva, RT

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