• That Was Genius Team

Episode 18 - Pornographic Soviet Drunk Train (Inventions Week)

Updated: Apr 19

Bizarre Failed inventions of the Soviet Union So, the Soviet Union, the iron curtain. It's a period of history I absolutely love in a part of the world I absolutely love, but it's often overlooked as a poverty stricken, grey, concrete monoloith of a time in which everyone disappeared for thinking thoughts they shouldn't, and everyone was a spy. Which is partially true, but doesn't tell the whole story. Because whilst the men in suits in the Kremlin certainly had their own ambitions, there were plenty of ingenious soviet inventors who really were trying to make the USSR a workers paradise. And a big part of their problem was distance. The USSR was big. Really, REALLY big. From Moscow to Vladivostok on the trans-siberian railway is a six day journey, and it's more than an 8-hour flight. That's not even factoring in the rest of the USSR, China, or the socialist or communist nations of South Asia and South America. So how do you make an economy work for all when everything is so disconnected? Well, they got inventive. The USSR was obsessed with making the world smaller – which was one of the real drivers behind launching Sputnik in 1957. And it's a few of their mad and/or brilliant ideas for making the union smaller that I'm going to talk about today. The Soviet Internet The Soviets were the first to pioneer the idea of the internet all the way back in the 1950s, as a way of running the economy more effectively. In 1959, A scientist called Anatoly Ivanivoch Kitov came up with a genius idea. He was the head of a secret computer research plant for the military, and realised that the economy could be run much more effectively if there was a big network of computers connecting every town and city. Instructions could be sent out, reports on production or the state of the city could be sent back, planning would be easier. Much better than the existing system of written post and shipping documents that were constantly getting lost or fudged by incompetent or corrupt local beurocrats. In fact, the existing system was so bad that a calculation error in the 1959 cencus had added four million fictitious people to the soviet population. So a computerised system would be really, really helpful. Even better, the network already existed in the form of a huge number of soviet military and spy stations with gargantuan computer mainframes. Kitov had the genius idea of hooking them together via radio or phone lines which already existed, and using them to help the economy at night, whilst the troops were asleep. An internet to help the economy with almost no extra cost. Genius. He wrote to the Government outlining his plan. Unfortunately, as is the way in the land of paradise and co-operation, his military commanders intercepted the memo, had him arrested and court martialled on trumped-up charges, and discharged from the military. They were scared of having to share resources with dirty civilians and beurocrats who might eventually get priority over them. The idea didn't die though, another scientist, Mikhailovich Glushkov, formed a group of young scientists called Cybertonia in 1960, dedicated to an internet for the Soviet population. They planned a network of up to 20,000 computers in an internet of things – even developing the first cryptocurrency to run through it. They had really bold ideas like paperless offices and computers that spoke in easily understood language so you could program and instruct one without needing to learn to code. Unfortunately, their idea was again scuppered, this time by crooked or untrustworthy factory foremen and bureaucrats who were worried that they would have their lives run by computers and become little more than office drones. I mean they weren't wrong. The Cybertonia group eventually became little more than a performing arts society, putting on shows, comedy nights and boozy parties for the scientifically minded. Altai – the Soviet mobile phone BUT the soviets did have one amazing success in bringing their world closer together – they kind of invented the mobile phone in 1963 – a decade before the west had them. It was called Altai, and was a system of portable radios that connected with the phone network via radio – it worked up to 20 miles from the nearest mast, and the phones were far smaller than the brick-sized offerings in the west, not much bigger than modern smartphones. It really was a genius idea and took off massively by 1965, just two years after its invention, all large soviet cities had Altai services and phone boxes. It was designed for Government and emergecy services to use first off, but pretty quickly became popular with the proletariat, and is still in use today in some Russian cities. The Ekranoplan This is probably one of my favourite mad Soviet Inventions. It's a plane that doesn't actually take off. It's stupid. It's called a ground effect vehicle – ground effect is a phenomenon which planes experience where they naturally float a few feet above the ground if they are going fast enough, without needing giant wings to generate lift like a normal plane. It's supposedly a quite efficient way to travel – a bit like an air hockey puck gliding along. At least it would be efficient, but the Soviets turned it into one of the largest vehicles ever to fly, with eight enormous jet engines strapped to it. Because mother Russia. It's pretty difficult to describe what these things look like, but imagine a cross between a normal plane and Thunderbird 2, with eight stupidly large engines bolted to the sides. The soviets had a couple of designs of these things, one called the Caspain Sea Monster, which flew (or sailed) in the 1960s, and one called the Lun, which flew in the 80s and still exists. They are classed as ships, but will do 250-400 miles per hour. Which sounds amazing, but then you realise it would be far faster if they just made a plane, and since it's only got a range of about a thousand miles given its eight ludicrous jet engines, you'd go much further in a ship. It also doesn't work in storms since it only flies 4m above the waves, and so will crash very easily – which is what happened to the Caspain Sea Monster. They were originally developed as high-speed emergency response vehicles – essentially giant ambulances the size of a 747, but also with missiles and guns. Unsurprisingly, they didn't take off. The Concordski So, did you know Tom that the Russians had their own version of Concorde, and that it actually flew first? The Tupolev TU-144 was developed at around the same time as concorde and actually flew six months beforehand. And for the soviets, it makes perfect sense. Instead of taking days to travel across the USSR, a supersonic plane will do it in four or five hours. On paper, it was ingenious. It was faster than concorde and could carry more people and cargo. Unfortunately, in their rush to get it done and push the envelope, the Soviets had to make some compromises. Inside the luxurious TU-144 was a hellish place to be. The air conditioning was tied into the engines and was so loud that the only way to communicate with your fellow passengers, even sitting next to you, was with a pen and paper. Sitting in the back seats could cause permanent hearing damage. It was about as loud as sitting on a tractor or motorbike at full power. It was also very unreliable – the engines had a habit of exploding, and was made with experimental metalworking techniques which made for a beautiful plane that could fall apart in mid air – which is what happened at the Paris air show of 1973 when a French fighter, sent up to spy on the Concordski, got too close and scared the pilot, who didn't know it was there. He put the plane into a dive and it fell apart when he tried to pull up, killling the six crew and eight on the ground. There were so many other problems that the Soviets were forced to... Borrow... some of the plans from the concorde developers. Plans which, it's rumoured, where deliberately sabotaged to waste Soviet time. It got do desperate that the Soviet government even had to ask the British for help – which was refused – before eventually abandoning the plance. Tom's notes:

Honorary mentions

· de rebus bellicis

o 4th of 5th century document suggesting military innovations for a recently unsuccessful Roman army

o It includes rather bizarre ideas like an ox powered, wheeled, paddle boat

o Unfortunately I couldn’t get a hold of any reliable translations of the document

§ I think I found one but I lost the website and it didn’t seem to contain all the information I was looking for

§ Chapter 2 was also called ‘On ways of making posts’ which really didn’t catch me

· Then went down a Roman military route

o Corvus; a Roman naval boarding device invented by the Romans to combat the Carthaginians naval superiority

o Maniple system; Roman military infantry system that was more manoeuvrable than the phalanx

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio; 1st Century BC

· Famous for ‘De architectura’/10 Books on Architecture

o Rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini in the library of Saint Gall Abbey (Switzerland)

o Vitruvian Man by De Vinci

o Very influential during the Renaissance

§ Michelangelo, Leonardo and all of the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Raphael and Donatello)

o Buildings; stability, beauty and utility

· Served in the Roman Army under Julius Ceasar as an artillery man

o More generally, he was an architect and general engineer

Chapter 10

Catapults or scorpions

· Truly riveting stuff

o Quote

· Basically a very large crossbow firing arrows

o Designed to target individuals not destroy walls

o Operated by 2 men

Chapter 11


· More truly riveting stuff

· The torsion ballista was developed under Alexander the Great

o It was basically a large crossbow designed to hurl rocks

Chapter 12

The Stringing and Tuning of Catapults

· Presumably so that the Romans can strum Ride of the Valkyries

· I love the smell of a dismembered Gauls in the morning

o (Apocalypse Now)

Chapter 13

· Battering rams invented by the Carthaginians when they used a big beam to knock down a building when sieging Cadiz using only their hands

o Not sure you can call that an invention

o I think the Assyrians were using battering rams and siege towers

o The Carthaginians seem to be the first Mediterranean power to develop siege engines

· Cheras of Chalcedon then developed the idea and placed the beam beneath a frame and covered it with oxhide to protect the men working the ram

· Philip 2nd and his son Alexander the Great developed the technology

o Presumably the siege of Cadiz was before the Punic Wars due to dates

o Vitruvius names 3 engineers who invented siege equipment but I couldn’t find any reference to these people in any other source; presumably lost works of literature; namely Diades

§ They invented moveable towers that could be taken apart and carried

§ With cranes, scaling machines and borers

§ A Swiss Army Penknife tower

· Open giant enemy cans of baked beans

· Pulling giant splinters out of your enemy’s enormous fingers after a day of chopping back roses

§ One of their battering rams sounds incredible

· It has various levels including areas where catapults and scorpions were placed

· There was a whole area on a lower floor for barrels of water in case of fire

§ Interestingly, Diades didn’t care much for ‘ravens’ thinking them useless; this is basically another name for the corvus that the Romans used successfully to combat the Carthaginians during the first punic war

o When the Romans captured Greece after the Macedonian Wars (215 to 150BC), they pinch lots of the siege warfare technology

Chapter 14

· The tortoise

o Some sort of device for filling ditches

o Interestingly Vitruvius mentions that the rawhide cover should be like a duvet stuffed with sea weed or straw soaked in vinegar for fire repelling

Chapter 15

· Hegetor’s tortoise

o Hegetor of Byzantium

o Giant ram; about 55 metre, suspended above a pyramidal structure that was nicely shaped to repel ballistic items. The shape also allowed for men to excavate underneath it.

o It also had levels for catapults and scorpions

o Controlled by 100 men it weighed about 480,000 pounds; 220 tonnes

Notably no reference to trebuchets or mangonels; found in Europe much later (5th or 6th Century AD) and introduced from China


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