Remember Wile E. Coyote and those ACME rocket-powered running shoes he always used to order? The International Herald Tribune reports that the Russians took that seriously:
Being a star engineering student at the top-notch science university here was not enough to exempt Viktor Gordeyev from physical education classes.
Gordeyev, a specialist in airplane piston engines, sweated it out with everyone else, running laps in lumbering, heavy infantry boots as a drill sergeant barked out commands in the foothills of the Ural Mountains.
He vowed to find an easier way. And he found one — or at least came close.
Gordeyev invented a gasoline- powered boot that looks like pogo sticks strapped to your shins. It works on the principle of the air-cushioned basketball shoe. But rather than being dismissed as a crackpot invention, his boots, which use tiny pistons, became classified as a Russian military secret until 1994.
Now, they have been held up as a symbol of both Russia's deep and rich scientific traditions and the country's utter inability to convert that talent into useful — and commercial — merchandise, except in the weapons business. The Russian edition of Popular Mechanics magazine argued that the unsuccessful attempt to commercialize the shoes is a symbol of this country's failure to tap its considerable scientific talent for profitable business ideas.
Just last month, President Vladimir Putin implored the country's most prominent businessmen to invest in innovation and science as a way to diversify away from dependence on oil, the unsteady source of Russia's recent prosperity.
German Gref, the minister of economic development, often says Russia's scientific base distinguishes it from emerging-market economies like India, China and Brazil, which Russia is often compared to. But others, including journalists at the Russian edition of Popular Mechanics, see the attempt to commercialize the shoes — which have helped people clock speeds of more than 30 kilometers per hour, or around 20 miles per hour, albeit at considerable risk of tripping — as a symbol of this country's failure to tap its considerable scientific talent for profitable ideas.
The strange story of Gordeyev's invention also highlights the obsession with military secrecy and the dearth of venture capitalists that make it difficult for Russia to tap this talent pool — or channel the talent into making marketable products.
First conceived in 1974, Gordeyev's simple plan for running faster and jumping higher without getting tired became a military secret, as generals envisioned soldiers running swiftly and effortlessly alongside armored vehicles.
It became declassified in 1994, and Gordeyev and his partners imagined growing rich by selling their invention to a lazy public. Instead, they went bankrupt last year.
Like the boots themselves, Russian scientists still are trying to gain traction in the capitalist world. A company in Saratov making a novel transport airplane with no tail, dubbed the "flying saucer," never got off the ground. Russian programmers, successful in Silicon Valley, are best known for hacking at home.
Meanwhile, natural resources account for 80 percent of Russia's export revenue; crude oil and natural gas alone account for 65 percent.
To encourage foreign companies to invest in cities rich in scientific talent, Gref's ministry is setting up technology parks with tax breaks in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk.
In perhaps a populist move, Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Parliament, said last week that his political party, United Russia, should help Russian inventors find markets for their ideas.
The party's program is called "The Idea Factory." Like so much else in Russia these days, it envisions a big role for the Kremlin in venture capital; some 30 party committees would recommend scientists for state grants.
"Industrialists do not take risks," Gryzlov said in an interview with the business newspaper Vedomosti published Feb. 26. "The technology boom in Japan began when the government started buying patents for inventions and pushing them into production."
But in spite of the rich traditions, the government spends far less than China on research, according to Russian figures. The Chinese government, for example, allocated $20 billion to its Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2006, compared with a subsidy of $1.1 billion in Russia, according to Aleksandr Nekipelov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Science.
"We need to decide what kind of country we want in the future" and decide how much to spend, Nekipelov said in an interview with the newspaper Gazeta.
Brain drain remains a problem, too. The American Business Association of Russian Professionals, based in Palo Alto, California, estimates that 4,000 highly trained Russians work in the Silicon Valley of Northern California.
For now, though, the boots of Ufa remain a curiosity, without the wider distribution their owners hoped for.
"Everything that would happen in an engine happens when you step down," Rustam Enikeev, dean of the faculty of internal combustion and a designer on the project, said of the boots at a recent demonstration.
A step down compresses air in the shoe, as in a typical sneaker. Then a tiny carburetor injects gasoline into the compressed air, and a spark plug fires it off. Instead of fastening a seat belt, the institute's test runner, Marat Garipov, an assistant professor of engineering, strapped on shin belts. Then he flicked an ignition switch.
Before running down a university corridor, he jumped in place a few times to warm up the engine. Garipov then ran laps for about 10 minutes, going at about 20 kilometers an hour, with the two-stroke boots emitting small puffs of exhaust.
A test runner once topped out at 35 kilometers an hour, in spite of the great danger of tripping.
The shoe's tanks hold one-third of a cup of gasoline each and will take the runner around five kilometers, or three miles; that means the boots can take you about 110 kilometers on a gallon, or 3.8 liters, of gasoline.
But even after years of research, gasoline-assisted running remains dangerous. "The worst situation is when the spark fires as the runner just lands, and the force of the blast is absorbed by his body," Garipov said.
The piston boots are a simplified internal combustion engine. They have no crank shaft to create circular motion as in an automobile engine. Instead, the piston punches straight down to push the boot — and whoever's foot is inside — into the air. The two powerful engines tend to throw a wearer off balance or cause knees to buckle.
First, the institute tried to interest the Soviet Army.
"We ran in the corridor of the general staff building, in front of the generals" and the minister of defense, Enikeev said. "They liked it, and were even a little frightened."
An order came down for the paratroop command to test the boots, and the design became classified. This gave the university access to government laboratories in Moscow, including those of the space agency.
What visions did the generals have for the boots? "We never discussed or analyzed this; it was not our business," he said. "We could only guess they might be used to cross mine fields" or to keep pace with military vehicles.
One result of the Russian space agency testing was a calculation that the energy required to move the one- kilogram, or roughly two-pound, boot at a run would exceed the energy input from the gasoline engine. That meant it was more tiring to run with the motorized footwear than without it, undermining the original rationale. Only if the weight of the boot could be reduced would the wearer have a net energy gain. So far they have failed at this.
The shoes were declassified in 1994. With capitalism sweeping over Russia, the inventors decided to market the boot. A former student, Anfis Saibakov, formed a company called Ekomotor to design a user-friendly version. He imagined people might want to commute in the boots, as they do on bicycles or in-line skates, or that using them would catch on as a sport. None of this happened.
When Saibakov demonstrated the boots at Disney World in Florida in 1998, safety came up as a concern, he said, and the company lacked money to fine-tune the product.
"They don't have characteristics that would allow an ordinary person to use them," Saibakov said glumly, admitting that running in the shoes would always mean "taking certain risks."
"Wile E. Coyote, suuuuuuuper genius."