Today, Joseph Stalin tries to set flight 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 works when it flows
from some internal wellspring of the technologist.
Kings and emperors cannot tamper with that process
in the long run. When they try to harness it, they
Joseph Stalin gave us a clinic in this simple truth
after he completed his takeover of Russia in 1929.
His first order of business was a program of
ruthless collectivization and murderous purges.
Then, in 1933, he started a campaign to rebuild
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.
That way, the papers could boast of technical
success while Soviet citizens were being trucked
off to the gulags. Russia posted her first record
in January 1934 when three Russian balloonists beat
the American altitude record. As it happened, they
died doing so. The year before, Stalin had seized
on the work of the famous Russian designer Tupolev,
who was already developing a long-distance
By 1938 Russia had claimed nearly seventy distance,
altitude, and other records. One of the more
spectacular 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 rose. Russia's day in
the sky began coming apart almost before it'd
In 1935 Tupolev built the largest passenger plane
ever made, the Maxim
Gorky. It was decked out like a luxury
liner, with one servant for every two passengers.
The Maxim Gorky crashed on its maiden flight
over Moscow. But worse things lay ahead.
In 1939, for example, a plane left Moscow to set a
record flying to New York. It was supposed to get
there in time for the opening of the New York
World's Fair, but it crashed in New Brunswick. The
pilots arrived in New York, all right. But they did
so in an American rescue plane.
Russia's greater failure came in the Spanish Civil
War -- that ghastly proving ground for fascist and
Bolshevik ordnance before WW-II. By 1937 it was
clear that Russian airplanes, designed to win
distance and altitude records, were no match for
German combat planes. Stalin reacted by jailing
Tupolev and nearly five hundred of his aeronautical
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 Stalin had
inflicted. We've seen that happen before in this
series, but seldom in such gross and simple terms.
It is an inescapable fact that creative people best
serve society's general health when they chase, not
their leaders' dreams, but their own.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds