March 10, 2017

Ukraine’s technological ‘fingerprints’


Ukraine’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador Valeriy Chaly opened an exhibit at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington on February 21 that highlighted the “50 most important inventions bestowed by Ukraine to the world.” Indeed, the exhibit highlighted some remarkable discoveries and inventions; it easily could have been twice as large.

According to guest speaker Borys Lozhkin, secretary of the National Investment Council and deputy head of the National Reform Council of Ukraine, indigenous Ukrainian scientists have left behind many “technological fingerprints that affect almost every aspect of our daily lives” – from PayPal to rockets, surgical procedures and computers. There are countless more Ukrainian expatriate scientists whose influence has been even greater on the global technological scale, in the form of “footprints,” because they were able to perfect their remarkable inventions and innovations in modern European and American research centers.

The exhibit was expertly organized and creatively developed by a group of Ukrainian designers, artists and public relations experts based in Kyiv. It was part of a series of events designed to celebrate 25 years of the U.S.-Ukraine partnership, but the main theme was to sell Ukraine’s technological base to attract American businesses and investments in technology centers in Ukraine. The exhibit was supported by the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council and the Embassy of Ukraine. Ambassador Chaly expects to bring this exhibit to many of the 300 or so international trade shows around the globe in order to promote the idea that Ukraine is an important and competitive center for modern technological investors.

Ambassador Chaly noted that “Ukraine is ranked as the number one software engineering force in Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine is also number three, globally (after the United States and India) in certified IT professionals.” He also noted that “Ukrainian scientists and companies participate in the U.S. space program, like the Antares rocket that was launched last October from NASA’s flight facility in Virginia. Ukraine’s portfolio also includes medicine, genetics, mechanical engineering and many other areas.”

Some of the ingenious indigenous inventions range from the surgical zipper to the world’s first gas lamp and the modern beehive. The larger and more notable modern inventions are largely derived from the Soviet era of militarization, when Ukrainian scientists were involved in the development of the atom bomb, airplanes, rockets and the Soviet space program.

The exhibition included small and relatively unknown inventions together with the large-scale rocket programs of Ukraine. For example, the surgical suture, or zip fastener, is a plastic device that is glued to the body with adhesive tape and looks like an adhesive patch, allowing the skin to breathe. It was designed by Poltava resident Vitali Zapeka in 1992-2002. This device stops arterial bleeding quickly, without infections, scars, needles or sutures.

Of course, most are familiar with Igor Sikorsky who designed the world’s first helicopter. Before that he designed the Ilya Muromets, the world’s first passenger aircraft, the world’s first four-engine aircraft and the world’s first strategic bomber. Sikorsky, who was born in Kyiv in 1889, studied at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (1907-1911). In 1912-1918, he was the chief designer of the aviation department of the Russian-Baltic Carriage Works, and after World War I emigrated to the U.S.

In 1853, Ignatius Lukasevich and Jan Zeh, assistants at the Lviv pharmacies Under the Golden Star owned by Peter Mikolyash, developed a technique for the distillation and purification of oil. They received an Austrian patent and opened their own production facility. With the assistance of tinsmith Adam Bratkowski, that same year they created a model for a gas lamp, which subsequently was used as the standard for lighting throughout the whole world.

One of the more intriguing inventions shown is the EnableTalk gloves that can establish verbal contact between people with disabilities and those who do not understand sign language. They were created in 2012 by the QuadSquad team, by Ukrainian students Anton Pasternykov, Maksym Osyka, Valery Stepanov and Anton Yasakov. At Microsoft’s Imagine Cup 2012 competition, this project won first prize. Each glove has 15 touch sensors that recognize sign language and convert it to text on mobile devices. Connection is ensured via Bluetooth, and the gloves work on solar batteries. The price of this invention is $75, much less expensive than the price of rival devices whose cost often reaches $1,000.

When it comes to expat inventors, one of our own, Ukrainian American Dr. Lubomyr Romankiw, created the first hard drive while working for IBM, and opened the doors to the creation of thin-film inductive and magneto-resistive micro heads for recording information. Dr. Romankiw was born in 1931 in the town of Zhovkva, Ukraine. He lives and works in the United States. He studied at the University of Alberta and received a degree from MIT. He is the author of 65 patents, and until recently was the chief scout of Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization.

Another well-known expat, William (Volodymyr) Dzus, is featured in the exhibit. Dzus invented a relatively simple device – the quarter-turn lock fastener that is used to secure skin panels on aircraft and other high-performance vehicles so they don’t loosen because of the constant vibrations of engines. Dzus, who came to the U.S. from western Ukraine in 1913, is best known as the founder, in 1948, and president of the Ukrainian Institute of America Inc., a charitable and cultural organization with headquarters in the old Stuyvesant mansion at 2 E. 79th St. in New York.

One doesn’t usually think about bees and technological innovation, but in 1814 the beekeeper Petro Prokopovych (born in 1775 near Chernihiv, Ukraine) proposed the world’s first design of a movable-frame beehive that not only provided easy access to the honeycombs, but also allowed honey collection without harming bees. Traditional fixed-comb hives for beekeeping require harvesters to kill the entire bee colony to collect honey – clearly a destructive and inefficient procedure. Prokopovych’s beehive quickly spread around the world. The modern movable-frame beehive appeared much later, in 1851, in the United States.

The most favorable and fuel efficient track for the space flight from the Earth to the Moon for the first time was calculated and published in the book ”The Conquest of Interplanetary Space” by Yuri Kondratyuk. Kondratyuk (whose real name is Oleksandr Sharhey) was born in Poltava, Ukraine, in 1897. The head of the U.S. Apollo Space Program, John Hubolt, and astronaut Neil Armstrong publicly noted the crucial role of Kondratyuk in both the success of the Apollo program and the successful landing of man on the Moon.

WhatsApp is an instant messenger for smartphones. It was created by company founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum. The latter was born in 1976 in Kyiv. In October 2014, the mobile messenger WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. Subsequently, Mr. Koum was appointed the executive director of Facebook Inc. This deal was a record in the start-up industry. The previous record-holder, Instagram, sold for only $1 billion. As of April 2015, the audience of active users of WhatsApp reached 800 million.

In 1880, in the town of Sestroretsk near St. Petersburg, the world’s first electric tramline was put into operation. It was designed by engineer Fedir Pirotsky, who was born in 1845 in Lokhvytsia, Ukraine. It was not a commercial success, but was introduced in Kyiv in 1892 and represents the first successful tram in the Russian Empire.

Serhiy Korolyov, was born in 1907 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, and studied at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in 1924-1926. Korolyov is considered to be the father of both the Soviet space program and the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was built in 1957. Moreover, liquid fuel engines were developed by the design bureau headed by Valentyn Hlushko, who was born in 1908 in Odesa, Ukraine. Hlushko was the designer of the Soviet space shuttle Energia-Buran. The profound modifications of the R-7 missile carrier are used in Russian space programs even today.

Of course, many Ukrainian scientists made decisive contributions (“fingerprints” and “footprints”) to the success of the Soviet space program, and Ukrainian companies were the base for the production of both spacecraft and launch vehicles, as well as for intercontinental ballistic missiles. After regaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine began the implementation of its own space program. Ukrainian launch vehicles put commercial satellites into orbit as part of joint international programs. In addition, Ukraine participates in the international space programs Sea Launch, MAX, ISS, Antares, VEGA, Aurora, Galileo, GMES and FLPP in cooperation with the space agencies of the European Union, the U.S., Japan, India, China and Brazil.

In 1908, Ilya Mechnikov became the first native-born Ukrainian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, receiving it for the development of phagocytosis theory of the human immune system. He was the author of fundamental works in the fields of immunology, bacteriology and epidemiology, as well as a pioneer in studying the human aging process (gerontology). He was born in 1845 in the village of Ivanivka, Kharkiv region, and later studied at Kharkiv University. He worked at Odesa University, which now bears his name, and later assumed the post of lab director at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Tuberculosis remained a dangerous disease even after the discovery of causative bacteria in 1882. Mortality rates reached 25 percent in the first five years after a person was infected. In 1943, a group of American scientists discovered streptomycin as a highly effective antibiotic that neutralizes the disease. Starting from 1946, the mortality rate from tuberculosis plummeted by 90 percent owing to the wide use of streptomycin, which paved the way to the near elimination of tuberculosis. The group of researchers was led by a Ukrainian émigré, Zelman Vaksman (1888-1973), who was born in the village of Nova Pryluka, Vinnytsia region. In 1952, Zelman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

George Kistiakowsky was a physicist and chemist who taught at Harvard University. In 1944-1945 he was the technical director of the Explosives Research Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. – a key member of the Manhattan Project, whose crucial discovery led to a breakthrough in the development of the atom bomb. Kistiakowsky was born in 1900 in Kyiv and studied there. In 1959-1961, he served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s science advisor.

On November 1, 1952, on the Enewetak Atoll (Marshall Islands), the United States tested the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The triad of American scientists credited with development of the thermonuclear bomb included two of Ukrainian descent – theoretical physicist George Gamow (born in 1904 in Odesa) and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (born in 1909 in Lviv). Gamow was also the author of the “Big Bang” theory of the creation and expansion of the universe.

After James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix of the DNA structure, scientists struggled to decipher the protein codes that form it. Gamow played a decisive role in this research, as he proposed a mathematical model and introduced the concept of a genetic code that shapes combinations of amino acids in the DNA molecule. Ulam designed mathematical computer models of nuclear and thermonuclear processes and programming languages, which addressed biological problems. These were later used not only in the area of nuclear physics, but also in molecular genetics and to solve genetic decoding.

If Drs. Romankiw and Dzus can be recognized as Ukrainian scientists, albeit as expats, then Roald Hoffmann can also be considered a Ukrainian scientist. Curiously, his name and accomplishments were missing from the exhibit. There will be a future article about his remarkable life and invention, which won him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981. He was born in July 1937 in the Ukrainian town of Zolochiv (then under Poland) and will be celebrating his 80th birthday in July, this year. His work, based on quantum physics, focused on devising predictive rules for what types of chemical reactions would be successful for different chemicals and compounds, leading to discoveries of numerous polymers and pharmaceutical drugs and medicines. Hoffman attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, went to Columbia University and then to Harvard for his Ph.D.

Ukrainians should be proud of their scientific and technological heritage, even though many of the great innovations, i.e., the footprints, were developed by expatriates – Ukrainians who left their homeland because real scientific advancement and technological and commercial opportunities lay elsewhere – in Europe and America.

In the United States, we all grew up with anecdotal stories of some of America’s great scientific achievements, beginning with Benjamin Franklin’s kite and lightning experiments, progressing to Robert Fulton’s steamboat, then Samuel Morse’s telegraph, followed by Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. What were Ukrainian children taught about science and technology during the same period? Who were their scientific heroes? This exhibit answered some of those questions.