All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1962

Russia’s Strength in Science is her Weakness


Mr. Phillips is a free-lance writer on American business, historical and scientific developments.

If 124 years of past history is to be accepted as a valid guide, the United States of America will quickly draw ahead of Russia in the cold war.

We Americans like to joke that Russia claims to have invented many things. We like to think that Americans really invented most of these things—because we know very well that the tremendous de­velopment of these products came right here in the United States. But the truth is that Russia did indeed invent many of the things that America developed.

The communist society in Rus­sia today differs only in degree—not in type—from the society that existed in Czarist Russia. Under the czars a small percentage of Russia‘s population belonged to the aristocracy. This artistocracy had a traditional love for science—and great personal freedom to follow scientific investigations. The great Russian novelist Tol­stoy, in his famous 1,400-page novel, War and Peace, played up this science tradition. One of his main characters, Prince Andrei, was involved in research when the Czar called him off to fight against Napoleon. But as War and Peace pointed out clearly, this freedom of the intellectual aristocrats did not extend beyond the realm of science. Prince Andrei was a land­lord who loved his people—but the czarist system did not permit him to introduce reforms.

Today the Russian communist society also has an intellectual aristocracy—limited to a small percentage of the people. Again these intellectuals have a wide freedom to pursue scientific in­vestigations. But once again the Russian state forbids any freedom beyond this limited field of science.

While the Russian state sup­presses development of scientific discoveries, the American system has always encouraged it. We too have had our share of creative scientific geniuses, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, who proved that electricity and lightning are the same thing. But in America a scientific idea became not an end in itself—but rather the begin­ning of new engineering feats!

Freedom of individual initiative spreads all through the American society—reaching every facet of our political, economic, social, and religious life.

It is this freedom which has produced a dynamic flexibility in the American society. And thus twice before in the past 124 years, America has rapidly surged ahead to develop a Russian invention on a wide scale, while Russia itself remained in the background. Now, history seems to be repeating it­self for the third time in the cur­rent cold war.

The Telegraph and Television

To understand the present, it is necessary to analyze the past. And the past shows that Russians in­vented both the telegraph and the television—only to have Americans develop, perfect, and mass pro­duce both of these items—even while Russia remained sadly de­ficient in each.

It was in 1825 that Russia first took a major science lead over the

United States. Both nations were still quite young. Both had newly won world notice by defeating Old World powers. In 1812 Russia had defeated Napoleon, crushing the tremendous French land army. In 1815 the United States concluded its second war against Great Brit­ain—a war in which the tiny but gallant American navy adminis­tered a series of humiliating de­feats on the previously invincible British fleet.

In 1825 Baron Schilling (Rus­sia‘s minister to Austria) invented a crude electromagnetic telegraph.1 The Czar refused to permit de­velopment of this invention. He was afraid his people would be able to communicate rapidly with each other via the telegraph and plan a widespread revolt through his Russian empire. So Russian science was forced to stand still.

Meanwhile, a brilliant and crea­tive young American portrait painter named Samuel F. B. Morse heard of this telegraph while on a three-year visit to Europe to study art. Morse’s imagination was aroused by the telegraph. Quickly he returned to the United States to develop it. He experimented in bitter loneliness for five years. Fortunately, the American free society permitted this development. There was no strong central government here to squash such original thinking.

And thus it was in 1837 that America took the lead in teleg­raphy. In 1837 Samuel Morse demonstrated his telegraph at New York University. The telegraph that Morse demonstrated was al­ready far ahead of Baron Schil­ling’s crude early device. Morse won an American patent. He went on to develop the Morse code—making telegraphic communication a practical reality.

On April 1, 1851, what is now the Western Union was formed. Under the American free enter­prise system, the growth of teleg­raphy began. Samuel Morse—a formerly penniless artist—became rich rapidly.

The Civil War Impetus to Telegraphy in the United States

But the biggest development and growth of telegraphy was yet to come—and again it was in the United States.

It was the Civil War that led to the real growth of telegraphy. On June 3, 1861, General McClel­lan sent the first Union Army tele­gram to Washington. President Abraham Lincoln instantly recog­nized what the narrow-minded Russian Czar failed to see—that the telegraph, far from being an enemy of the government, could be its greatest ally! President Lincoln ordered a telegraph room set up right in the White House. He had 15,389 miles of “lightning wire” strung. Civilian telegraphy expanded rapidly at the same time. Altogether, 1,200 “telegraph boys” were hired and trained. One of these boys was a bold 15-year-old named Thomas Edison.

Quickly young Tom Edison mas­tered the telegraph. By 1869 he was Western Union‘s fastest tele­graph operator. Just one year later—when he was only 22—he in­vented a device which today sym­bolizes America‘s free enterprise system. It was the stock market ticker tape. It brought him $40,000 and ended his poverty forever. Edison called himself “America‘s first electrical engineer.” He promised “inventions – to – order.” Inventions were ordered. He de­livered a fantastic 1,093 inventions in the next 24 years! Western Union paid him $250,000 for just two of his early inventions.2 By 1872 the pace of inventions was speeding up in America, even as the stagnant Russian economy con­tinued to plod ahead at its gov­ernment-restricted pace. It was in that year that a Boston speech teacher named Alexander Graham Bell saw a Western Union ad of­fering a fortune to anyone who could invent a telegraph capable of sending several messages at the same time.

With a fortune at stake, Bell set to work to develop a multiple telegraph. His knowledge of sound and electricity led him to invent the telephone in June of 1875. He offered his invention to Western Union for $100,000. It was not the invention the company had been looking for. It turned him down. If this had been Russia and it had been the central government which turned Bell down, the telephone might have remained forever un­known. But fortunately, the Amer­ican free enterprise system existed and Bell stubbornly kept on trying to develop his product. He was desperately in debt. Finally he found some private backers. He launched the Bell Telephone Com­pany. By December of 1879 the new telephone was a big commer­cial success in the United States. Bell Company stock had grown to $995 a share. Bell and the early, far-seeing investors in the tele­phone had become rich.3 And thanks to the dynamic flexibility of the American free enterprise system, the world was able to benefit from the telephone. Rus­sians, meanwhile, under a govern­ment system strikingly like that which they have today—the corn­munist system of central govern­ment—still were not able to de­velop the telephone.

Applied Electronics

The United States and Russia went their separate ways. Russia continued to concentrate on pure science. The United States con­tinued to devote most of its efforts to practical application of scien­tific discoveries. For example, in 1883 Edison discovered something he could not see any practical use for at that time. He called it “The Edison Effect.” Thirteen years later an Edison assistant named Fleming realized that this “Edi­son Effect” was a brand new field—electronics!4 He invented the first electronic rectifier. But there was not yet any practical applica­tion for electronics. Edison and America ignored it. We concen­trated on bringing the benefits of electricity to American industry—which expanded at a fantastic pace. Meanwhile, Russian indus­try grew at a snail’s pace, con­trolled by the dead hand of central administration.

If the telegraph and telephone were the only examples of the Rus­sian centralized society failing to follow through on one of its own inventions, then we would have little cause for confidence today. We might think that the com­munist revolution had transformed Russia’s society. Actually, his­tory proves quite the opposite. The Russian society definitely trans­formed the communist revolution! It changed it from the society en­visioned by Karl Marx to one di­rected by a tiny intellectual aris­tocracy at the top—a society not unlike the Russian society under the czars.

The Coming of Television

Perhaps the most striking proof of this comes in the story of the television. Russia has long claimed to have invented the television. We have long laughed at their claim. We should not laugh—for they did invent the television! In this discovery lies not proof of Russian supremacy but proof of our own.

In 1900 Russian scientists were trying to develop a wireless tele­graph. Their research led them to invent television. Russia’s Boris Rosing succeeded in projecting the first small, blurred television image in a laboratory.5 But once again the heavy hand of govern­ment clamped down. The discovery remained in the laboratory. The great possibilities of television were denied to the Russian people—for the Russian government feared that an enlightened people might rise up and overthrow their despotic rulers.

Boris Rosing’s assistant, Vladi­mir Zworykin, escaped from Rus­sia.6 He came to the United States, known all over the world as the home of free enterprise and un­limited opportunity.

The communist revolution suc­ceeded in replacing one totalitar­ian dictatorship with another. Russian life remained stagnated by the heavy hand of central ad­ministration. But in the booming 1920′s, American industry entered one of its most creative and dy­namic phases. It was in this free American society that the Russian invention of television was de­veloped. And an American capital­istic organization called Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.) was intrigued by immigrant Zworykin’s television ideas. It de­cided to develop them. And in suc­ceeding years R.C.A. spent $9,253,­723 to develop this ex-Russian’s television ideas. Meanwhile, in 1922 a 15-year-old Idaho genius named Philo Farnsworth read about Rosing’s early TV experi­ments. Farnsworth realized that the electronic vacuum tube in­vented by America’s Lee DeForest in 1907 would overcome many of the defects in the crude Russian device. He sketched his own TV unit. American engineers appraised it to be far ahead of Rosing’s. Another American capitalistic or­ganization—Philco Corporation—backed Farnsworth with one mil­lion dollars. In the fertile soil of free enterprise America, the idea which had been stifled in Russia raced to full development and ma­turity.

World War II hastened the de­velopment of television. Churchill used radar—a first cousin to tele­vision—in the 1940 battle of Brit­ain against Hitler’s luftwaffe.7 Al­ways flexible and willing to seek instant practical application of sci­entific inventions, America’s young electronic firms dropped their work on television and rushed to develop radar instead. They made fantastic progress in a short time. General Eisenhower later used advanced American radar in the war in Eu­rope. General MacArthur used it in the Pacific. It was after the war that the great difference between the flexible American free enter­prise system and the stultified Russian communist system was clearly shown. Russia’s central planners proved unable to appre­ciate the potential benefits of tele­vision—an idea they had conceived themselves!

But once again American com­panies, spurred on by the twin struggle to perfect television quickly. Within a few years after the war, television was ready for the consumer market. The early leaders in TV—R.C.A. and Philco—both enjoyed giant sales growth in the TV sales boom of the early 1950′s. Within a decade millions of American families added the tele­vision set to their other home ap­pliances—including telephones—and thus widened the already huge gap in standard of living between them and their Russian counter­parts. Once again the highly cen­tralized Russian system had proven itself capable of concentrat­ing scientific energy in the dis­covery of a new invention—but absolutely incapable of flexibly adapting itself to the development of mass production of such an item.

We Could Do it Again

One would think that after America had so consistently fallen behind Russia in scientific inven­tions—only to stage a quick come­back and forge ahead into a fan­tastic lead—that we Americans would be confident in our ability to do it again.

But for some reason, Americans were not aware of our great rec­ord in overcoming early Russian leads. In the 1950′s, while American firms were mass-producing television sets, Russia was push­ing ahead with new scientific re­search. On October 4, 1957, Russia shocked the world as it regained its science lead. It launched the first earth satellite in the history of the world—Sputnik I.

Americans around the country panicked at this great lead into the space age. Voices of doubt and anguish were heard arising from all over the land. Some even won­dered if the American system were not inferior to the communist system.

John Foster Dulles pointed out that totalitarian government had always been capable of great sci­entific achievements. For example, the Egyptian Pharaohs made great advances in the engineering sci­ence in building the pyramids. But at what a cost in human life and comfort! When Moses led his peo­ple out of scientifically advanced Egypt, the great era of individual freedom began. The battle be­tween Moses and the Pharaoh has been going on all through history. It is still going on today in the cold war between Russia and free America.

Closing the Gap

America’s free enterprise sys­tem was not shocked by Russia’s launching of Sputnik. It had grown used to Russia’s scientific advances over the years. It had also developed a sense of confidence in its ability to overcome quickly such Russian leads.

On the night of February 17, 1958, President Keith Funston of the New York Stock Exchange said in Washington, D. C., “The demands of the space age will re­quire an outpouring of capital that dwarfs anything the United States has ever before attempted. Seven billion dollars a year must be raised annually through stock is­sues—more than 21/2 times the level of recent years,” he esti­mated. Actually, the dynamic American free enterprise system had already begun its rapid drive to close the research gap. On the very same day that Mr. Funston spoke, The Wall Street Journal carried a summary of new invest­ments made by the deVegh Mutual Fund. The managers of this invest­ment fund saw in the space age a great and fundamental opportunity for free enterprise to prove itself—and they seized the opportunity. The Fund managers added a total of 23,408 shares of nine stocks al­ready moving into the “space age.” And this was just the beginning of a massive effort by America’s free enterprise system to catch up and pass Russia in the space age.

In the months since then we have seen the unbelievable results of competitive American industry meeting a challenge to our free­dom. In just a few short years America has overcome a Russian research lead that had been con­servatively estimated at at least twelve years. Less than four years after America had been shocked at Sputnik, America had launched its own man into space.

And this is just the beginning. Already “second generation” prod­ucts are pouring off the assembly lines of American companies. Even as Russia concentrates all of its scientific and industrial might in the perfection of just one device—its giant rocket—American firms are branching out and developing an unbelievable mixture of com­mercial and military “space age” products. Already America’s life has been profoundly changed by “space age” products. American scientists have again shown that once aroused they can compete with any other scientists in the world—and win this competition. But perhaps the biggest advantage on our side is the flexibility and initiative that our system of pri­vately owned companies has pro­duced. Not one but dozens of mis­siles were designed and tested. Not one but several rocket fuels were developed. And this duplication—ridiculed and ignored by the com­munists—has occurred in every field of “space age” research. Yet it is this same apparent duplica­tion of effort—spurred on by com­petitive circumstances—that has resulted in the unbelievably rapid development of superior products in a number of space age fields.

And now, even more advanced products are on the drawing boards of American industry. Just as be­fore, American citizens are find­ing their individual standards of living raised dramatically through the practical application of scien­tific development—even as the Russian central government con­tinues to deliver nothing but prom­ises to its underfed and over­worked masses.

Yes, 124 years of history shows that the American system can ov­ercome Russia‘s science lead (if she has a lead at this time). But history also records a considerable tampering with the American sys­tem during our time, an accelerat­ing trend toward the kind of so­cialistic welfare statism and gov­ernment regulation and control of industry and people that destroys the flexibility and initiative of free men in a free market. Unless this trend be reversed, by the will of individuals to be self-responsible and free of the government-guar­anteed life, there is no assurance that our former advantage over Russian ideas and practices can be maintained. If we give up free­dom, we lose its by-products as well.

Foot Notes

1 Mitchell Wilson, American Science and Invention (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), p. 119.

2 Ibid., p. 299.

3 John Patterson, America‘s Greatest Inventors (New York: Stratford Press, 1943), p. 60.

4 Jerome S. Meyer, World Book of Great Inventions (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1955), p. 184.

5. Wilson, op. cit., p. 400.

6 Ibid., p. 401.

7 Egon Larson, Men Who Changed the World (London: Phoenix House, Ltd., 1959), p. 213.