Russia’s best kept secret


In the 1970s, the Soviet Union and the United States competed in the race to explore the moon. The Soviet Union did not have the economic muscles, like the United States Apollo Program, to land a man on the moon, so instead they put their effort into landing an unmanned vehicle on the dark back side of the moon that could then send TV pictures back to earth.

The problem was that they had to light up the surroundings with powerful lights and no known lightbulb had strong enough glass to handle the shock at the lunar landing. Not even the most powerful lightbulbs used in the Soviet tanks stood up to the tests. A lot of solutions were tried to reinforce the glass in the bulbs, but nothing helped.

The dilema was finally reported to the head of the entire moon project, who was trained in the so-called TRIZ method. The chief scientist’s first question was what would be the use of the glass. He got the answer that the glass was obviously needed to guarantee vacuum around the filaments. He then quickly realized that because it is a perfect vacuum on the surface of the moon, no glass was needed.

TRIZ is a method for systematic technical innovation originating in the Soviet Union. TRIZ is the Russian acronym for Teoriya Resheniya Izobretatelskikh Zadach, closest translated to The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. The author was the engineer and inventor Genrikh Altshuller (1926-1998), who assumed that the secret of technical innovation could rather be found in the inherent logic of the invention itself than in the mind of the inventor.

By studying more than 30,000 different patents in detail, he found that all technical innovations can be boiled down to 40 different basic technical principles. Based on the problem you face, these principles can then be applied systematically, which is often much more effective than relying on the result of associative thinking or random trial-and-error.

Using this method, Altshuller and his assistant Rafail Shapiro could successfully solve a large number of technical problems during the 1940s. When Altshuller realized the full benefit of TRIZ, he wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin in 1949. The letter described the Soviet Union as a land in ruins, where a wide spread of the TRIZ method would be needed to quickly restore the country.

The result of the letter, however, was that both Altshuller and Shapiro quickly ended up in the infamous GULAG camp Vorkuta in northern Siberia. There Altshuller liaised with the academic elite of the camp, a number of imprisoned former university professors, and continued to apply TRIZ to the work in the camp’s coal mines.

Two years after Stalin’s death in 1953, Altshuller and Shapiro were released and immediately began to spread the method, which eventually became mandatory reading in many Russian engineering schools.

Altshullers was a productive author, and his ideas eventually got a certain dissemination also in the West, not least through his both readable and amusing review book “And suddenly the inventor appeared: TRIZ, the theory of problem solving, based on thousands of letters he received from young people who read about the method in various Russian youth magazines. However, very few inventors and innovators in the West would be familiar with the method in detail.

The 40 principles of TRIZ are based on nine fundamental laws that can be used both for improvements of existing technologies and for identifying and developing brand new ones. Based on these principles, one can systematically review its technical problem to see it from all possible angles.

The approach is thus the absolute antithesis of the intuitive, associative thinking, but where the associative thinking can be applied to all problems and without much knowledge, the 40 principles of TRIZ would require a substantial of knowledge in engineering, physics and chemistry to be fully applied.

But for anyone who works with technical innovations, it may be useful to dig deeper into Altshuller’s TRIZ method, as it may provide insights that you may not otherwise have received.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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