Story of How St. Petersburg Engineer Bridged Russia-West Technology Gap
Some 170 years ago, whilst Great Britain and France – the leading Western-European powers – had already made it through the Industrial Revolution, Russia was seriously lagging behind. The ruling elite, still living the memories of the early-19th-century military victories, could not grasp the actual size of the gap. Driven by their illusions of the invincibility of the army and navy, they let the country lose the Crimean War. The defeat, however, forced the government and Emperor Alexander II himself, coronated in 1856, to look into retooling and upgrading the structure of the military industry. The Russian Empire's best engineers and scientists were assigned to this task.
One of the most acute problems was the poor quality of cannons, proven over the attack of Sevastopol and in a few more battles. Improved fire efficiency and larger size were the trends of the time — this increased the guns' role in neutralising enemy fighters yet reduced their durability. If cannonry fails in the course of the battle, the chances for the win are significantly hampered. Therefore developing a formula of high-grade steel for gun barrels and implementing it in practice was crucial to ensure future successes.
Pavel Obukhov, who graduated from the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers (now St. Petersburg Mining University) in 1843, succeeded in fulfilling this task of national importance. The top graduate of the year, he reclaimed the scientific heritage of Pavel Anosov, another outstanding scientist, also a graduate of Russia's first higher technical university. Obukhov continued research in the field, and in 1857 he obtained a patent for his invention, a method for large-scale production of the highest-quality crucible steel.
"Using iron ore in crucible process was the main peculiarity of this method. Hence, regardless of the carbon content in the initial material, the produced steel had the same composition and properties, including, amongst others, high flexibility, hardness, strength, endurance. Such steel became irreplaceable in the production of edged weapons, consequently leading to the establishment of large steel factories in Russia," explains Vyacheslav Brichkin, Head of the Department of Metallurgy at Mining University
The technology proposed by Obukhov, who served as steward of the Zlatoust Machine-Building Plant in 1854–1861, proved helpful in manufacturing plate armours, blades, work tools. However, its primary use was to improve the process of casting gun barrels. Experimental models were first tested at the factory and later on in St. Petersburg, under the supervision of higher authorities. The shooting took place at the proving ground in the capital city, with firing activities starting in November 1860 and lasting 4.5 months.
Different guns were tested to identify how many shots can be made with a particular weapon before it fails. Those made of British and German (Krupp) steel could not pass the 2,000 mark, whereas using the Russian cannon, made according to the 'Obukhov' technology, resulted in twice more gunshots. On the day of its four thousandth salvo, Alexander II visited the test site. As the legend says, the Emperor asked the engineer if he was confident the weapon would endure. In response, Obukhov sat atop the gun and said he would be sitting there, at the barrel, waiting for the anniversary shot to happen.
Zlatoust Plant weaponry turned out to be stronger and more durable than its foreign counterparts. It was also significantly cheaper — 16 roubles per pood instead of 45 roubles the treasury would have to pay for German arms. This marked the beginning of a new era in the development of Russia's military sector, being the first step to break up the monopoly of the German cast-steel producer, manufacturer of Krupp guns.
"Obukhov's cannons brought success to the engineer himself as well. He was promoted to colonel, awarded with the Order of Saint Vladimir, 4th class, appointed head of the Zlatoust mining district. Soon he left for St. Petersburg, sent off there to manage the construction of a steel foundry, which was afterwards named after him," says Elena Kotova, Deputy Director, St. Petersburg Mining Museum.
The photo shows a mortar made in 1867. Manufactured at Obukhov State Plant.
Russia's most modern manufacturing facility of the time was founded with private capital. Pavel Obukhov took care of engineering and staffing tasks, Nikolai Putilov was responsible for administrative functions, and merchant Sergei Kudryavtsev financed the project. The construction was completed in a record-breaking time: whilst it began in 1863, the first batch of steel was produced as early as April 1864.
One of the most technologically advanced factories globally manufactured 20 grades of steel, naval armour, turret carriages, cannons of different calibre, mortar shells, even surgical instruments. As the plant had a large area in its possession, it allowed for launching the production of wheels and axles for the rolling stock of domestic railways.
Today the factory remains a major metallurgical and heavy machine-building producer, which manufactures sophisticated, high-tech and science-intensive products. These include, for instance, missile platforms for air defence systems, various military equipment and, surprisingly, also miniature cannons, including models of artillery weapons made at the plant and before its establishment.
One such item is a 1:24 scale drawing of a 50-tonne hammer. It was passed over to St. Petersburg Mining Museum in 1870, shortly after Obukhov's death. The museum also exhibits art objects made of steel produced at the Zlatoust Machine-Building Plant, the first facility to introduce the innovation that put an end to Russia's technical backwardness from the countries of the West.