Vladimir Shukhov, a Russian Empire and Soviet engineer, is the author of many inventions. He is renowned for designing Russia's first oil pipeline and refinery; he was also the first to commercialise motor gasoline into production. Yet, nearing the end of his life, he was sentenced to a "suspended death by shooting".
The desire to approach the solution of a problem from a completely unexpected angle was displayed by Vladimir Grigorievich while he was still in school. When a fourth-grader, Shukhov found his original proof of the Pythagorean theorem in 1866, it impressed the whole staff of an authoritative St. Petersburg grammar school. However, to the boy's luck, his teacher was the eminent scientist Konstantin Krayevich, author of the most popular physics textbook in the Russian Empire. A less experienced teacher would have showered him with praise; he gave him a low score, arguing that he should have first given his proof as a sign of respect for the ancient Greek philosopher.
The young man's next achievement was the invention, while still a student, of a steam nozzle that allowed the efficient use of liquid fuel in steam boilers. Moreover, he suggested burning fuel oil, which was previously regarded as a waste product. Thanks to its manufacturability and simple design, the device became widespread, and 21 years later, Dmitry Mendeleev even decorated the cover of his book "The Fundamentals of Factory Industry" with the device's image.
But the actual fateful event was a trip of the young man as a member of a scientific delegation to the United States to attend the World's Fair of Industrial Achievements. It was there that he met Alexander Bari, an American engineer of Russian descent. The businessman had a wide circle of connections - he was close friends with Leo Tolstoy, Mendeleev, Ludwig and Robert Nobel. Famous Swedes offered Bari the chance to head the construction of Russian oil industry facilities. He returned to Moscow and remembered the talented 24-year-old engineer. As a result, Shukhov was entrusted with the project of the first oil pipeline in the Russian Empire, connecting the Balakhani field with Baku.
In the old fashioned way, oil was transported from the fields to refineries in barrels and drums. It was too long, dirty and slow. A pood of local oil cost 3 kopecks, and transporting it from Balakhan to Baku cost 20 kopecks! Therefore, the Nobels decided to abandon cartage in favour of the oil pipeline. As a result, 10,000 cart owners lost their jobs. The desire to regain their 'legal' means of earning a living prompted them to fire the pipes. Despite the resistance, approximately 10 km of the oil pipeline was safely completed in 1878. Guardhouses were built along the route to protect it.
The cost of delivery oil has been reduced more than fivefold. During the first month of pipe's operation, 841,150 poods of oil were pumped, and in a year - 5.5 million poods. The news of the positive implementation experience spread all over the country. Within the next couple of years, four more similar pipelines were built under the technical leadership of Shukhov.
It was then, in Baku, that Vladimir Grigorievich designed the world's first cylindrical steel oil tanks. Before that, oil in Russia had been kept in earthen or stone storage tanks in the open air. In America, rectangular tanks made of metal were already in use, but they required much more steel compared to the "Shukhov's" version. The advantage of the young inventor's idea was the stepped thickness of the walls - in the upper part of the construction, the oil pressure on the walls was lower, which made it possible to halve their thickness. By 1917 more than 20 thousand such tanks had been built. Moreover, the principles proposed by Shukhov are still used in the construction of modern cylindrical storage tanks.
He not only designed and implemented his designs but also carried out scientific work. Today many of his articles form the basis of the classical theory of oil pipelines.
At the same time, Vladimir Grigoryevich was not a closed scientist, entirely absorbed only by his discoveries. He loved cycling and was once even the Moscow cycling champion. As a young man, he had been diagnosed with consumption, and the doctors persuaded him to change his climate. According to the engineer's firm belief, the bicycle helped him beat the disease and live to the age of 85. He was no less keen on photography - he left behind more than 1,500,000 portraits and city sketches, including today's fashionable selfies.
An equally exciting fact about Shukhov's personal life: the mandated Olga Knipper for two years. The groom's mother strongly disapproved of his choice, so the long-awaited marriage never took place. The girl later became a famous actress of Moscow Art Theatre, partner of Konstantin Stanislavsky and wife of Anton Chekhov.
In 1880, Bari registered the "Technical Office of Engineer A.V. Bari", of which Vladimir Grigorievich became chief engineer. The collaboration built up momentum. Within a year, they opened the Kuskovo chemical factory in the Moscow region. The enterprise consisted of eight refinery cubes producing paraffin, astraline, lubricating oil and mineral tar.
Over the 40 years of their joint "creativity", they built steam boilers, railway bridges, oil barges and designed sea mines.
"They say Bari exploited me. That is true. But I was also exploiting him, forcing him to carry out even my most bold assumptions," Shukhov recalled.
Hyperboloidal towers were one such idea, which brought the inventor no more minor fame than oil pipelines. Firstly, he was the first to introduce the shape of a hyperboloid into architecture. Secondly, he pioneered the creation of metal mesh structures. After the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition in 1896, when the engineer demonstrated all his ideas, he received many orders for lighthouses, water towers, ship masts and power lines. The most famous of the projects was the radio tower on Shabolovka. However, the 160-meter high tower, which later became the emblem of Soviet television and the screensaver of "The Blue Fire", almost cost the scientist his life.
Construction was carried out without scaffolding or cranes. The structure, which required 240 tons of metal, was built with winches. According to the drawings, the tower was to consist of six sections, one above the other. But in June 1921, there was an accident while lifting the fourth tier. The cable broke, and the section fell from a height of 75 metres. It damaged the fifth and sixth sections, which were being assembled on the ground at the time. Although no irregularities were found and the cause of the incident was ruled "material fatigue", Shukhov was sentenced to a suspended death sentence. In other words, he was to be executed as soon as the construction was completed. In February, the work was completed; in April, radio broadcasts began, and the 68-year-old inventor was pardoned. The incident provoked a significant public outcry. The prototype of the protagonist in Alexey Tolstoy's novel Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin is based on Vladimir Grigorievich.
In 1923, when Shukhov was already in his eighth decade, an American Sinclair Oil Corporation delegation came to visit him. They claimed to have invented the cracking unit, but as they had heard about a specialist in this field in Russia, they decided to meet him. Cracking is the high-temperature treatment of oil that breaks it down into lighter fractions: petrol, paraffin, toluene, propylene and diesel.
Imagine the surprise of the foreigners when Shukhov presented his 30-year-old patent for a thermal cracking unit. He proved that their development ultimately repeated his invention and was not original. Thus, Vladimir Grigorievich was globally recognised as the author of the industrial process of producing automobile gasoline. The lack of demand for his discovery for a long time was explained primarily by the lack of mass demand for automobiles in Tsarist Russia. Legend has it that the Americans offered the engineer fabulous money for that time, but he replied:
"I'm happy with the salary I get from the Soviet government."
His patent for a petrol plant was first used only in 1931, during the construction of the Soviet cracker refinery in Baku. Is it worth specifying whose design it was built on?