May 07, 2015

The Most Useful Russian Inventions

The Most Useful Russian Inventions

This Radio Day (May 7) marks the 120th anniversary of the world’s first radio, demonstrated by Alexander Popov. And that’s not the only great invention Russia’s scientists have given us!

When you turn on your car radio, do you give a bit of gratitude to Alexander Popov? This Russian physicist was the first to present plans for a device that used radio waves to detect lightning. Ever since those plans were presented, on May 7, 1895, Popov has been credited as the inventor of radio in Eastern Europe, and during the Soviet Union May 7 was yet another early-May holiday, Radio Day.*

What else have enterprising Russians brought the rest of the world?


Tired of radio? You have Russians to thank for the next big thing in entertainment: TV. Specifically, Vladimir Zworykin, who was awarded a patent for cathode ray tubes in 1928. He had come to the U.S. from Russia after World War I, and presented his invention to the management at Westinghouse. Management was not impressed, and Zworykin was told to “devote his time to more practical endeavors.” Luckily for us, he pressed on with his tubes.

Periodic Table

If you’ve ever taken chemistry, you’re probably familiar with Dmitri Mendeleev’s ingenious ordering of the known and even yet unknown chemical elements. Not only did his table provide an easy reference for future students of chemistry, it allowed him to correct a few inaccurate measurements for existing elements and predict the properties and weights of yet-undiscovered substances. And he was right!

Monument to Mendeleev and his periodic table
St. Petersburg, Russia

Mendeleev is also credited with bringing the metric system to Russia, making St. Petersburg a renowned center for chemistry research, and demystifying gases and solutions. His most famous alleged contribution, the ideal alcohol concentration for vodka, turns out to be a myth: the 40% standard had been set back in 1843. The lack of historical basis for this fact, however, doesn’t keep Russian vodka companies from using it in their advertisements!


Sure, Leonardo da Vinci had some helicopter-looking devices in his notebook, but it took Russians to bring viable helicopters into the world. Mikhail Lomonosov, Russia’s first scientist, was the first to demonstrate a device with a spinning rotor designed to lift instruments into the air, back in 1754. Of course, that was more like a toy than a helicopter, but Igor Sikorsky, a Russian aviation specialist who emigrated to the U.S., picked up the slack in the late 1930’s, when he developed the Vought-Sikorsky helicopter, the first to go into mass production and the model that set the standard for most helicopters designed since then.

Space Race

You may also have heard of Sputnik, the first satellite, launched in 1957. Just over a decade later, the U.S. would put a man on the moon, but until then, the USSR had a significant lead in the space race: first mammal in space, first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, first craft on the moon… And Russia’s space program is still going strong, helping maintain the International Space Station (although not without its setbacks).


*To be fair, Guglielmo Marconi was working on a very similar device in 1894, also using radio waves to detect lightning. So while Alexander Popov did make notable contributions to the development of radio, his title of the inventor of radio can certainly be disputed.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Eugenia Sokolskaya

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