When the Soviets built an electric tractor

Lenin may have equated Communism with the union of Soviet power and the electrification of the entire country, but surely he didn’t literally mean hooking everything up to the grid. His overeager disciples thought otherwise. Going through 60-year-old trade journals, nuclear physicist Miklós Tallián unearthed a bizarre attempt to electrify Soviet fields. This is the story of engineer A. V. Pitchak and the Soviet electric tractor. – Ed.

After World War II, the space race was immediately kicked off. Both Sam and Joe (as Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős called the US after Uncle Sam and the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin) wanted to have machines and people up there, first for delivering nukes, and of course, “for the wonder and glory of it”. And for a long time, the Soviets seemed to have the upper hand. They launched the first satellite and sent the first man into orbit, and the West started to fear the unknown and unseen Soviet mastermind behind these achievements, whom Tom Wolfe calls D-503, the designer of the mighty Integral, after the novel We in his book about the heroes (and lab rats) of the space race, The Right Stuff. Indeed, this was the picture the West perceived, as intended by masterminds not in engineering, but in power plays, communication and deception: the Soviet communist party leaders.

View gallery »

The West had absolutely no knowledge of the downside of Soviet innovation and engineering, which was definitely not something to be afraid of—at least from the Western point of view. Everything was politically triggered and everything was planned in big, central bureaus, and the result was inevitable (as theoretically also shown by János Kornai): shortage of goods in every possible area of the economy, not just crappy but completely insane products, and an extended black market. Electric tea kettles made from sheet metal, having the mains power contacted to the outside of the instrument–you could get these with ease, then you fixed it at home. Having Soviet shops full of size 10, female, blue heels, and nothing else, well, that could happen. And everyone bought these to trade for something once the shoes were gone and shops have been filled with, for example, mustard. This, I believe, is well known to a certain extent, but the levels the craze reached are beyond imaginable.

The Zaporozhets, as seen in a James Bond movie? Oh, please. Everything you knew about Soviet cars and heavy machinery seems like a bedtime story, once you are introduced to the not-mighty-at-all invention of engineer A. V. Pitchak: the electric tractor, which was designed to be used in Soviet agriculture. Not in households where an electric lawnmower could make sense, but out in the fields. Now why spend any time and effort to actually develop such a tool? I found the answer in Gép (The Machine), a Hungarian technical journal for mechanical engineers, from the early 1950s.

When the Soviets built an electric tractor
Figure 1: The Ribalko travelling transformer

The answer is, of course, because Lenin said so. Lenin had the idea to increase the usage of electricity in agriculture. So engineers went to invent every kind of agricultural tool powered by electricity to meet the orders. There was no possibility of saying no, or quitting, as all jobs were controlled by the state and 8D processes were carried out by the secret police, assuming that Soviet technology is always superior compared to anything, so any failure must be the result of capitalist sabotage. Anyone who was declared to be a saboteur had a good chance of being beaten up in the dungeons of the police then sent to Siberia or executed.

So engineers did not hesitate but started to build electrical machines for the kolkhozy and sovkhozy (collective and state farms). The very first idea was to put two, electrically powered winches on two sides of a field, and to tie a plough between them, which would travel back and forth. Really. But the tremendous inefficiency of this method was obvious even to the Soviet eye, so they went on to develop the ultimate solution, the electric tractor.

When the Soviets built an electric tractor
Figure 2: Pitchak's prototype (click to view large)

You may be wondering how to power a heavy machine with a 70 kW asynchronous traction motor which is intended to plough four hectares of land in a day without stopping. With a battery? Calculations showed that the tractor would have needed a hefty 10 metric tons of acidic water and heavy metals, which was not feasible even by Soviet standards. So they decided to use power from the grid—literally.

They took a long cable and plugged it in, well, to be exact there was no plugging, the cable was directly attached to the 6 kV high-tension transmission line, and then the tractor carried a huge transformer which produced the voltage needed to power the electromotor. It was just as insane as it sounds. Engineers in the Machine Factory of Orlovsk designed the first units (top). They manufactured a dozen or so and went out to test them. And the test had to be successful, so it was. They found that the electric tractor had numerous advantages:

  1. No need for gasoline supply (and where does the electricity come from, you may ask)
  2. The electric motor is easy to install, start up and handle (well, it depends)
  3. The electric motor can be overloaded by a factor of 2.5 (now, this tells you a lot about Soviet design principles on one hand, and the intended way of using the tool on the other)
  4. Power consumption of an electric engine is proportional to workload, while an internal combustion engine consumes twice as much gas when overloaded by only a mere factor of 1.25 (again, no clear picture of what exactly the intended way of operating this stuff is)
  5. No need to change fuel or cooling water (and also, no forced-air cooling was designed, ideal for a multi-kilowatt electrical engine)
  6. In the winter, the electric engine can be removed easily and used to power stationary machines (which will not work through the spring and summer, I guess)
  7. Usage of the electric tractor contributes to the increasing efficiency of power plants (I have absolutely no idea how this was found out)
  8. No need to transport fuel by railroad
When the Soviets built an electric tractor
Figure 3: VIME-4-500 tractor (click to view large)

Only one crucial issue was found: the cable, which was stored on the saddle-like self at the end, was pulled and dragged behind the tractor, and due to this it damaged the crops. No, they did not find out that the whole idea is nuts, and running around with a 6 kV cable is more than dangerous, no. Cable drag damages the crops, and the cable is hard to recollect, and this affects productivity, this was the result of the test.

So they decided to remove the transformer from the assembly, and feed the tractor with low voltage, which allowed them to use a lighter cable, and design a cabling mechanism to prevent the dragging.

The low-voltage supply was provided by the Ribalko travelling transformer, a wagon with trolley poles containing the transformer unit itself, positioned under the cross-country power lines (Fig. 1).

And, in the design of engineer A. V. Pitchak, the tractor had a large cable drum (with a separate motor to reel up the cable if necessary) on the top, and a long arm to let the cable be laid down easily and to prevent it from falling under the tractor or being dragged (Fig. 2, all sizes in millimeters in the figures). The cable built into the tractor is approximately 2,500 feet long–to no one’s surprise, power loss on the transformer and the wiring was around 30%, but economic operation was never the result of Soviet engineering. The design underwent further testing, and passed, so normal tractors were selected to be converted for electric operation. This was the birth of the VIME-4-500 and VIME-4-1000 tractors (Figs. 3 and 4). According to calculations, Soviet engineers expected to save 30.6 metric tons of fuel by the usage of 1.4 metric tons of copper (for the wirings) per year.

When the Soviets built an electric tractor
Figure 4: VIME-4-1000 tractor (click to view large)

There was one minor question, though: logistics. As you can imagine, the tractors were confined to a circle with a radius of 2,500 feet, but this was no obstacle to the Soviets. They paired two tractors, which were assigned to two adjacent parcels, and once done with the work, they met in the middle and one pulled the other to the opposite end of its field, which was the edge of the new area to be worked on. This, of course, required high voltage power lines every 5,000 feet in the Soviet countryside. In the end, this quite foreseeable nuance may have been one of the key factors in abandoning the electric tractor program. They could have seen it all the time, and I am quite sure they knew it–but still, they went for it, just because Lenin said so. And after discarding the whole project, there is no trace, no explanation on what was the reason for abandoning the idea, which was also a quite common Soviet tactic: pretend like it never happened, and never mind that yesterday everything was full of propaganda predicting huge success. People were trained to not remember. But after 60 years I found these pictures on an old library shelf and told you the beginning of the story of the Soviet electric tractors. I do not know how it ended–I just hope the engineers were not sentenced to serve in Siberia.


An early version of this story originally appeared on the author’s personal blog on April 4, 2007, and was republished with permission. All figures first published in Gép.

Email us with the subject line "Syndication" if you would like to see your own story syndicated here on Jalopnik.