Aleksandr N. Shchukarev | History of Computing in Ukraine

Aleksandr N. Shchukarev

Until recently, Professor A.N. Shchukarev was known only as a talented chemist and one of the founders of thermochemistry. Now, his name also appears in books on IT history; after all, Shchukarev recreated and perfected Jevons’ “logic piano” and created the “Logical thinking machine”. At the beginning of the 20th century, Shchukarev was one of the first scientists in Russian Еmpire (Ukraine now) to tackle mechanization of logical thinking.

Aleksandr Nikolaevich Shchukarev was born in November 1864, in a family of a low-level official in Moscow. In 1885, he graduated middle school. At that young age, he already exhibited an aptitude for mathematics and physics. Thus, that same year he entered Moscow University’s natural sciences school and joined the physics and mathematics department.

In 1893, Shchukarev became a laboratory assistant at one of the first thermochemical labs of Professor Vladimir Fyodorovich Lungin, where he spent seventeen years doing research. Three years later, in 1896 he made his first major discovery, the equation on dissolution kinetics of crystals, later named after him.

In 1906, Shchukarev successfully defended his Master’s Dissertation, “Research on internal energy of gaseous and liquid objects”, which also earned him the position of a freelance lecturer at the Moscow University. Four years later, he defended his Doctor’s Dissertation “Properties of solutions at critical dislocation temperatures”.

Shchukarev’s scientific interests were very diverse; aside from chemistry, he was interested in the logic and methodology of science, the issue of mechanization of formalizable viewpoints, etc.

In 1909, Shchukarev improved the logarithmic ruler, which was the primary tool for a majority of mathematical and scientific calculations at the time. He constructed a logarithmic computing cylinder with a spiral scale, using a new material (celluloid), which streamlined the use of the instrument.

In 1910, Shchukarev was elected to be Professor Extraordinaire for the general chemistry department of the Higher Geology College in Yekaterinoslavl (now Dnipropetrovsk). There, the scientist discovered and described the phenomena of chemical polarization and the magnetochemical effect, and spent time studying them during the following years. The works that resulted from this are among the first predecessors of the electron theory in magnetochemistry.

In September 1911, Shchukarev was elected as the Professor for the Department of general and inorganic chemistry of the Kharkiv Technological Institute (KTI), and the scientist moved to Kharkiv with his family. His work as a professor there began in the general chemistry department, where he lectured a course on inorganic chemistry as well as a special course on physical chemistry.

In April 1914, at the request of the Moscow Polytechnical Museum, Shchukarev gave a lecture called “Cognition and Thinking”. The lecture was accompanied with the demonstration of a “Logical thinking machine”, which was able to make simple logical conclusions mechanically, based on the input statements. Essentially, Shchukarev perfected the machine created by William Stanley Jevons, an English mathematician, which he called “logic piano” and presented back in 1870. Shchukarev’s version was smaller, made completely out of metal, without the design flaws of Jevons’ machine. The scientist also connected a light screen to the machine, which served as the output of the final calculation result. The machine presented the result in simple phrases, which made a much stronger impression on the audience than Jevons’ special letter code.

In 1925, Shchukarev published a short but significant article, “Mechanization of thinking” in a Leningrad popular science journal “Vestnik Znaniya” (English: Herald of Knowledge). The success of this article on the issue of mechanization of formalizable viewpoints contributed significantly to Shchukarev’s acclaim as a scientist.

In 1926, Shchukarev created and headed the Department of physical chemistry at KTI. After spending 20 years working at KTI, he retired. However, the scientist continued to advise a number of scientific research institutes, e.g. the Institute of applied chemistry, the Board of weights and measures, the Institute of refractory materials, the Institute of experimental medicine, etc.

In 1935, Shchukarev was once again invited to work at the Department of physical chemistry, as a Head of Research and a Lecturer for the graduate course on chemical thermodynamics. However, in November 1935 Shchukarev fell ill, and died soon thereafter, in April 1936.

According to his colleagues’ recollection, Shchukarev was a typical professor of a pre-revolutionary upbringing, and wore his frockcoat to lectures even during the difficult post-revolutionary years. He lived and breathed science, treasured its ideals, and seemed not to pay any attention to the politics around him. Because of this, he never compromised with the then-popular “Marxist” scientists, which earned him harsh public denigration by Soviet newspapers. Still, his scientific accomplishments were valued enough to allow him to avoid repressions and die a respected man.

In his scientific will, Shchukarev explained his position, saying, “As for politics, I have neither strived nor aspired for it, because I took up as my motto the phrase “creativity ends where conflict begins” early on in my life, and I was primarily interested in the former”.

Shchukarev’s works on philosophy and “cybernetics” were not understood by his contemporaries and were undeservedly forgotten. Only recently did the general public finally learn about some of his inventions in the field, like his “Logical thinking machine”.

Shchukarev contributed much to modern science. Together with Professor Luginin, he founded modern thermochemistry; Shchukarev’s calculation methods and devices are still being used. He also discovered the presence of current during polarization, the magnetochemical effect in electrochemistry, and defined the effects of deformation of lattice structure and X-ray exposure on metals’ electrolytic potential. The equation he derived for calculating dissolution kinetics of crystals became one of the mainstays in modern physical chemistry textbooks. He also created one of the first electric logic machines, known today as “Shchukarev’s logical thinking machine”, with an output system that became a prototype for modern display devices. Finally, his idea of philosophical structuralism described in “Essays on Philosophy of Natural Sciences”, which suggested an ordered nature of the world, was one of the first in philosophy of science.