These five Russian-Americans contributed in fields ranging from technology to Hollywood cinema. They may not be household names, but they left a rich legacy of achievements and breakthroughs.
Dr. Vladimir Zworykin gets a Rumford Medal for scientific achievement from Dr. Harlow Shapley, November 18, 1957. Photo: AP
It’s relatively easy on the Internet to find lists of prominent Russian-Americans, including some who have achieved worldwide acclaim: author Vladimir Nabokov, actor and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. However, there are plenty more figures who have left their mark on U.S. history but received much less attention. Below, Russia Direct details the stories of the five most prominent Russian-born immigrants who you probably didn’t know about.
Vladimir Zworykin, creator of contemporary television
The inventor of contemporary television, Vladimir Zworykin, arrived in New York for the first time at the end of 1918. As an official member of Russia’s White movement, he represented Alexander Kolchak’s government – one of many unofficial governments that controlled selected parts of the country during the time of the Russian Civil War. He would return to the U.S. less than one year later. During the second trip, Zworykin would be informed that the White Army had lost its military positions and, as a result, he had lost his place in Russia.
Having received a brilliant education in Russia, France and Germany, in the U.S. Vladimir Zworykin started working for Westinghouse, one of the leading companies in the radio industry of that time. There he launched his experiments exploring the methods of how to transmit moving images over long distances.
In 1928, Zworykin met David Sarnoff, a vice president for Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who also emigrated from Russia. Their collaboration resulted in the invention of television. It was officially presented in 1933. Within the next fifteen years, Zworykin would improve his technology and create color television.
Zworykin widely consulted governments of Western Europe on the introduction of his technologies. The Soviet Union was no exception to the countries where he received a warm welcome. The Bolshevik leaders highly valued his expertise and, therefore, surprisingly pardoned Zworykin for participation in the White movement as well as his immigration abroad.
Later, he focused on medical science and optics. Not many know that the founding father of television did not enjoy watching his product. In his 70s, Zworykin criticized TV for its constant commercials and lowest common denominator content.
In total, Zworykin received more than 120 patents for different inventions. In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the National Medal of Science. Zworykin was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He was “a gift to the American continent,” according to his colleagues. Vladimir Zworykin died on his 94th birthday in 1982.
Alexander Poniatoff, engineer and inventor of the videotape recorder
In the era of Netflix, not many may recall what a videotape recorder looks like. However, what now seems a very old-fashioned device was a real technological breakout in 1956 when it was first presented. The videotape recorder completely changed the way of TV content delivery. The person who invented it was Alexander Poniatoff.
He was a student of the founding father of Russian aviation, Nikolay Zhukovsky, a pilot in the Imperial Russian Navy during World War I and a participant of Russia’s White movement before becoming an American scientist. He was born in 1892 in Kazan, Russia. After the defeat of the counterrevolutionary movement, he spent seven years working as an engineer for the Shanghai Power Company and, then, in 1927, arrived in the U.S.
In 1944, Alexander Poniatoff launched his own electric company called Ampex. The first breakthrough occurred in 1947 when the company introduced the first practical magnetic audio recorder in the United States. But this was nothing in comparison to the next achievement of Poniatoff’s team.
The day before the official presentation of the videotape recorder at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters Convention in Chicago, members of Poniatoff’s team attended a regular CBS meeting for television personnel at the same convention center. First, CBS representative Bill Lodge helped out with the company’s presentation and then opened the session to questions and answers.
“That was the signal to rewind the tape. When Bill received the signal that the tape was ready to play, he concluded his presentation with much applause... when the audience saw the replay on the same monitors as the original presentation, they went wild with shouting, screaming, and whistling. When the curtains were opened to show the Ampex videotape recorder, some stood on their chairs to get a glimpse of it… When the Convention opened the following day, everyone had heard about the introduction of the Ampex videotape recorder,” according to the magazine of the Audio Engineering Society.
In less than a week, Ampex received orders for 45 recorders at a price of around $45,000 each and a contract from CBS for modified prototypes at a considerably higher price. On Nov. 30, 1956, the broadcast company went on the air with the first-ever, nationwide tape-delayed broadcast. They showed Douglas Edwards with a CBS News broadcast from Hollywood, California.
The company kept its leading position on the recording market almost half a century. During this time, global electronics giants used his patents to produce home video equipment. Among numerous awards, Ampex received an Oscar for technical achievement as a result of this development. The most recent prize, a Technical Grammy, the company received on Feb. 9th, 2008 – 28 years later after its founder’s death.
Igor Sikorsky, aviation pioneer
When he was just eleven, legendary pioneer of contemporary aviation Igor Sikorsky had a dream of “a large flying ship in the air.” After that, he never gave up on his greatest passion.
When Igor Sikorsky reached the U.S. after the Russian revolution, he was already well known both inside Russia and abroad as one of the greatest pioneers of contemporary aviation.
Nevertheless, the transition to American life was not easy even for him. First, Sikorsky was making a living by giving private lessons in math. He founded Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation, but the company did not do very well. He was working on the S-29A, a twin-engine, closed cabin, 14-passenger plane sitting at his friend’s chicken farm where his “factory” was located. The company was balancing on the edge of bankruptcy.
But one Sunday everything changed. A chauffeur-driven limousine stopped by the chicken house. A tall figure in a long black coat got out of the car and inspected the aircraft in total silence. This was prominent Russian-born composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, who had also moved to the U.S. by that time.
“Everyone on the farm got greatly excited. They all immediately recognized Sergey Rachmaninoff as their guest. My father went up to him and they began to talk. After about a half-hour visit, Rachmaninoff said, ‘I believe in you and your plane and I want to help you.’ ”
The composer sat down and wrote a check for $5,000 (approximately $100,000 today). With a smile, he gave the check to the stunned Sikorsky and said, “Pay me back whenever you can.”
Sikorsky not only returned the money but also made a huge contribution to U.S. aviation. He developed 15 types of planes and then, in 1939, switched to helicopters. His products were used by both civil aviation and military aviation. The Sikorsky Aircraft Company, slightly renamed in recent years, is still one of the most respected brands on the market.
Boris Pash, U.S. military intelligence officer
Boris Pash was born in San Francisco in 1900. At the time, his father, Theodore Pashkovsky, was serving in California as a Russian Orthodox priest. When Boris was twelve, his family returned to the Russian Empire, but not for long.
In the early 1920s, after the participation in the White movement, Boris decided to return to the U.S. He shortened his last name to Pash (from Pashkovsky), earned an American bachelor’s degree in physical education and started teaching at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles.
The upcoming war changed the life of the regular schoolteacher. He joined the United States Army Reserve and was appointed chief of counterintelligence for the Ninth Corps in San Francisco. During the war, Boris Pash commanded the Alsos Mission, a classified intelligence operation for monitoring German nuclear specialists and their developments in Europe. Under Pash, the Alsos Mission carried out operations in Italy, France, and Germany. Members of the Alsos Mission were among the first American troops to enter Paris.
Pash also investigated the case of suspected Soviet espionage at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California. Working on this case, he interrogated Robert Oppenheimer. Pash concluded that he may still be connected with the Communist Party but did not recommend Oppenheimer’s removal from the Manhattan Project, which had been established for production of the first nuclear weapons. Pash did not believe that Oppenheimer was a spy.
Later, he represented the military in the CIA, which was working at that time on a controversial program called PB-7 for carrying out kidnappings and assassinations. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Pash ever participated in any of them.
Boris Pash was later included into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. He died at the age of 94.
Michael Chekhov, influential Hollywood actor
Today it is almost impossible to imagine what American cinema would be without Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, or Lloyd Bridges. However, this could not have happened if Michael Chekhov, a Russian-born actor and an acting teacher, had not moved to the U.S. in 1939. All the Hollywood stars mentioned above were his students.
A nephew of the famous playwright Anton Chekhov, Michael was raised in a middle-class Jewish family in St. Petersburg. He studied acting at the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theater under Konstantin Stanislavski, an inventor of the widely known today as the Stanislavsky system, and he considered Michael to be one of the most outstanding students he had at the time.
However, after the October Revolution in 1917, Chekhov split with his teacher and started tours on his own. He continued development of the Stanislavsky system, which, in his opinion, had some limitations. After much work, he finally turned it into his original technique.
After suffering nervous breakdowns, showdowns with theater personnel, and struggles with the new Soviet reality, Michael Chekhov left Russia in 1928. His European career was so successful he rejected the first job offer he received in the U.S. Nevertheless, since the war was coming, he moved to America just four years later, in 1939.
Chekhov’s theater started working in Ridgefield, Connecticut, fifty miles away from New York City. Even though English was not his native language, he was still welcomed in the American acting industry. Michael Chekhov starred in Hollywood movies, including “Spellbound” (1945), a psychological thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, which brought him an Oscar nomination.
At the age of 64, he passed away in California in 1955 and was buried in Hollywood. Many years after Chekhov’s death, such actors as Beatrice Straight, the Oscar winner for “Network” (1976), Johnny Depp, and Anthony Hopkins would cite his technique as highly influential on their careers.