Shukhov towers, Shukhov boilers, rooftops, bridges, aerial cableways… Contemporaries of Vladimir Shukhov called him a ‘man and a factory’, and this is no exaggeration. He designed and implemented dozens of innovative engineering solutions — each one more genial, more unconventional, and more inventive than the last. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of this great Russian engineer, whose ideas inspire to this day, and whose creations still live among us.
While studying in the 4th grade, grammar school student Vladimir Shukhov discovered a new way to prove the Pythagorean theorem. However, the teacher did not appreciate of such an original idea, and gave an F to what he thought was an insolent pupil. Despite such prejudice, Shukhov graduated with honors, and entered the Imperial Moscow Technical School. After a couple of years of studies, he patented his first invention — a steam nozzle for burning liquid fuel. This small part made the process safer, more convenient and helped conserve fuel. Even now, 150 years since that invention, the principles of Shukhov nozzle are still successfully applied.
He eventually graduated from the school with a gold medal. Nikolay Zhukovsky, the father of modern hydro- and aerodynamics, offered a talented graduate to stay in school and engage in science, while famous mathematician Pafnuty Chebyshev invited Shukhov to work at Saint Petersburg University. However, the young engineer declined all offers because he decided to choose a career as an inventor and a practitioner. So then, Vladimir Shukhov, the best graduate of the Imperial Technical School, went to the USA for one year as part of a scientific delegation.
While in America, the young engineer could not pass up the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine held in Philadelphia in 1876. There, Shukhov saw state-of-the-art inventions for that time — the torch of the still unfinished Statue of Liberty, Alexander Bell’s telephone and the first Remington typewriter, to name a few. But most importantly, he encountered Alexander Bari, an engineer and an exceptional manager who, despite being born in Saint Petersburg, had for six years been enjoying a brilliant career in the United States. Bari had his own technical bureau in Philadelphia, which participated in the contest for the construction of pavilions for the Centennial exhibition, and received the Grand Prix and a gold medal for the project.
In 1877, Bari decided to make a dramatic turn in his career and returned to Russia. Upon his arrival, he reunited with Vladimir Shukhov, who was working in the drafting office of the Warsaw-Vienna Railroad. At that point, Alexander Bari had already concluded a lucrative contract with the Nobel brothers, owners of various oil fields in Baku. He offered Shukhov to become head of his company’s Baku branch. That was the beginning of their cooperation- one which lasted for 35 years, and marked a whole era in the history of the Russian engineering.
Shukhov, Chief Engineer at Bari’s firm, later provided the following description of their duo: “They say Alexander Bari took advantage of me. It is true. Legally, I always remained a hired employee at the office. My work was paid modestly compared to the income it generated for the office. But I also took advantage of him, forcing him to implement even my boldest suggestions!”
Shukhov began work in Baku at the age of 25. Nevertheless, he managed to come up with something new for literally every aspect of the Russian oil industry. In order to improve oil extraction, Shukhov decided to use compressed air and invented an airlift, or a jet pump. For oil storage, he developed cheap and cost-efficient riveted tanks. Shukhov patented cracking, a method of producing gasoline and kerosene from oil residues. As for transportation of fuel, the engineer came up with two ways. He created drafts of oil barges and made calculations for the first Russian oil pipeline from the Balkhany oil fields to Baku. When designing the oil pipeline, he made two inventions at once: first, he introduced the “special thin-walled pipes with constant wall thickness independent of diameter”, and secondly, developed a method for pumping oil residues while applying heat in order to decrease their viscosity. The Shukhov formula, which outlines the most efficient method of pumping oil through an oil pipeline, is still used to this day.
A man of life
The 1890s were a period in Shukhov’s life that one of his colleagues called “a continuous triumph of mind and wit.” At first, only the engineer himself and his partner believed in the durability of hyperboloid structures and ceilings in the form of mesh shells — something which was invented by Shukhov. Shukhov came up with this idea while working on the construction of the ceiling of the Upper Trading Rows located on Moscow’s Red Square. He created unique arched truss structures for the roof of the building which is now known as GUM. Although the weight of the iron parts of the rafters was more than 800 tons, the roof looked light and weightless.
For the 1896 All-Russia Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, Bari’s company built eight pavilions using arches in the form of mesh shells, and roofing in the form of a steel membrane — the so-called “Shukhov rotunda”. The constructions created by Shukhov were elegant and durable, as well as easy and cheap to assemble.
Despite such inventive activity, Vladimir Shukhov, by his own definition, was a “man of life”. He spoke several foreign languages, participated in bicycle races, had a collection of photographs, loved the theater, took an interest in art, was a brilliant chess player and was interested in carpentry and turnery… All those hobbies contributed to his fruitfulness, rather than interfered with it.
After the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition, Vladimir Shukhov began to receive numerous orders. He designed and built hundreds of water towers, erected several railway bridges, and drew up a new project for Moscow’s water supply system. He invented a new type of spatial flat trusses and used them when designing the roofing of the capital’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Moscow Central Post Office, the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, halls and a trainshed for the Kiev Railway Station in Moscow. However, the radio tower on Shabolovka street was to become the engineer’s most important masterpiece.
The first powerful radio station in Moscow was built in 1914 on Khodynka Field. However, five years later, it became clear that it could not cope with the growing volume of radiograms. Shukhov’s company won the contest for the construction of a new tower which was announced in the year of 1919. At that time, Civil War broke out in the country, and Russia experienced severe shortage of both money and metal. In this context, one of the most important distinguishing features of the engineer’s project was the incredible cost-effectiveness of his lightweight constructions.
Shukhov decided to build nine hyperboloid sections, with a total height of 350 meters — 26 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. Later, he was persuaded to revise the project, and the height of the tower was brought down to 148.5 meters. In August of 1919, the design of the radio tower on Shabolovka street was personally approved by Lenin, who ordered the Military Department to allocate 240 tons of metal for the construction.
The tower was erected without scaffolding and traditional cranes, using only winches and five wooden cranes. During the construction, Shukhov made adjustments to the project. “It was a stupidity… the calculations regarding the passage through the bottom neck… It was my error… a winch had just one reel instead of two,” he wrote in a diary.
In the summer of 1921, an accident occurred at the construction site — the fourth section fell down from a 75-meter height and damaged the fifth and sixth sections that were being assembled on the ground. Shukhov was immediately accused of sabotage and sentenced to death. However, the execution of the sentence was postponed until the end of the tower’s construction.
On March 19, 1922, transmitters were installed on the tower and the first radio broadcast began. The Shablovka tower turned out to be more powerful than the radio stations in Paris, New York or Berlin.
The authorities removed the charges against the engineer, and the death sentence was overturned. They even wanted to reward Shukhov, but the engineer refused.
Vladimir Shukhov was a patriot of his country throughout his life. After the Revolution, he received many work offers from abroad, and he had good reasons to leave: his sons participated in the White movement, where one of them was killed. Some of his long-time colleagues were executed. Alexander Bari’s company and factory that were run by the engineer’s son (Bari himself died long before the revolutionary events) were nationalized. Shukhov was evicted from his mansion, and was forced to transfer all rights to his inventions to the Soviet state. Despite all this, the engineer remained in Russia. He said: “We must work, and work regardless of politics. Towers, boilers and rafters are needed, and we will be needed.“
All major Soviet construction projects executed during the first five-year plans were closely associated with Shukhov. He participated in the implementation of the country’s electrification plan by creating the tower structure of a power line across the Oka River. He designed open-hearth furnaces for numerous plants across the country; he also launched the “Soviet Cracking” plant in Baku. In 1932, Shukhov restored the ancient Ulugbek madrasah in Samarkand after an earthquake, and performed a unique operation by “straightening” the minaret that began to fall. He was 79 years old at the time!