Ivan Kulibin

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Kulibin, Ivan Petrovich


Born Apr. 10 (21), 1735, in Nizhny Novgorod (present-day Gorky); died there June 30 (July 11), 1818. Russian inventor, self-taught.

Kulibin was the son of a petty merchant. From early child-hood he exhibited exceptional ability in building a variety of mechanical devices. In his early years his attention was drawn especially to the study of clockwork mechanisms. In 1764-67 he built an egg-shaped clock containing an extremely complex automatic mechanism. In 1769 he presented the clock to Catherine II, who appointed him head of the mechanical workshop at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. At the academy, Kulibin constructed a “planetary” pocket watch, equipped with an original compensation mechanism. In addition to the hours, minutes, and seconds, the watch indicated the months, days of the week, seasons, and phases of the moon. Kulibin also designed miniature clocks that fit into rings and tower clocks. He developed new methods of grinding glass for use in microscopes, telescopes, and other optical instruments.

In the 1770’s, Kulibin designed a single-arch wooden bridge to cross the Neva River with a 298 m span (the usual span being 50-60 m) and proposed using unique trusses with transverse latticework. In 1776 a special academic commission was selected to test the completed scale model (one-tenth the original size) of the bridge. Kulibin’s project was highly praised by L. Euler, D. Bernoulli, and the other members, but it was never built. In 1801, Kulibin began designing variants of a metal bridge. How-ever, even these interesting designs were rejected by the government, despite their complete technical validity. In all, Kulibin completed three designs for wooden bridges and three for metal.

In 1779, Kulibin constructed a remarkable spotlight that emitted a powerful light from a weak source. This invention found wide application in illuminating workshops, vessels, and light-houses. In 1791 he designed a self-propelled carriage equipped with a flywheel, brake, gear box, ball bearings and operated by a pedal drive. The same year he developed a design for prosthetic “mechanical legs” (this was used by a French entrepreneur after the war of 1812). In 1793, Kulibin constructed an elevator that operated by screw-type lift mechanisms. In 1794 he designed an optical telegraph for the long-distance transmission of pre-arranged signals.

Kulibin was dismissed from the academy in 1801. He returned to Nizhny Novgorod, where he developed a method of moving ships upstream. This culminated in 1804 in the construction of a ship that could make use of the stream itself to do so (he had begun designing this project in 1782). Tests proved the ship reliable and economical, yet this invention too was never used and the ship was eventually sold for scrap. During this period Kulibin also worked on the possibility of using a steam engine to drive cargo ships. He designed many other projects as well, including a device for boring and machining the inner surface of a cylinder, a machine for mining salt, a seeding machine, various milling machines, an original-design water wheel, and a piano-forte. Kulibin lived in extreme poverty during the later years of his life.


Svin’in, P. Zhiznrusskogo mekhanika Kulibina i ego izobreteniia. St. Petersburg, 1819.
Pipunyrov, V. N. Ivan Petrovich Kulibin: Zhizn ’ i tvorchestvo. Moscow, 1955.
“Rukopisnye materialy I. P. Kulibina v Arkhive Akademii nauk SSSR: Nauchnoe opisanie s prilozheniem tekstov i chertezhei.” (AN SSSR: Trudy arkhiva, fasc. 11.) Moscow-Leningrad, 1953.