Today, we watch Joseph Stalin set aircraft distance
records. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
If I learn one thing from
history, it's that technology is effective when it
flows from some internal wellspring of the
technologists themselves. When kings and emperors
interfere with this process, they only damage it in
the long run.
Joseph Stalin, for example, completed his takeover
of Russia in 1929, and he began ruthless
collectivization and murderous purges. Then, in
1933, he started a campaign to build up Russian
morale -- to draw attention away from his ongoing
slaughter of so-called "enemies of the people." He
flung Russian airplane designers and pilots into
the competition for flight records. This way, the
Russian papers were able to boast of technical
success after success, while Soviet citizens were
being trucked off to the gulags.
In 1933 Stalin seized on the work of the famous
Russian designer Tupolev, who was already
developing a long-distance airplane. But Russia's
first sally in the records war was made in January
1934 when three Russian balloonists bested an
American altitude record and, as it happened, died
in doing so.
By 1938 Russia had claimed some 68 records for
distance, altitude, and various "firsts." One of
the more spectacular ones was a 6300-mile polar
flight from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, in
1937. Before each flight, Stalin met the pilots,
discussed their plans, and publicly worried about
their safety. He met returning airplanes while
flashbulbs popped. All the while, the death toll in
Russian pilots rose. Then two things happened.
One was that Russia's lead started to slip. In
1939, for example, a plane left Moscow to set a
record flying to New York. It was to arrive in time
for the opening of the New York World's Fair, but
it crashed in New Brunswick. The pilots arrived in
New York, but did so in an American rescue plane.
But Russia's greater failure came in the Spanish
Civil War -- that ghastly proving ground for facist
and Bolshevik ordnance, before WW-II. By 1937 it
had become clear that Russian airplanes, which had
been designed to win distance and altitude records,
were no match for German combat planes. Stalin
reacted by jailing Tupolev and nearly 500 of his
aeronautical engineers. Russian aviation had done
brilliantly in the short term, but when all was
said and done, it never did recover from the
long-term damage that Stalin had done to it.
We see here what we've seen before in this series,
but never in quite such gross and simple terms --
that engineers best serve the general health of
society when they chase their own dreams.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds