Remembering MIE Professor Alexander Gorlov

MIE professor emeritus Alexander Gorlov died in June but left behind a legacy of invention and creativity, including a turbine that garnered him international acclaim.

Source: News @ Northeastern

I was always impressed by his approach to solving prob­lems,” said Alexander Martsinkovsky, asso­ciate pro­fessor of math­e­matics at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “He was a good thinker and he took his time to come up with beau­tiful solutions.”

Martsinkovsky was reflecting on the life and career of his long­time friend and col­league Alexander Gorlov, pro­fessor emer­itus of mechan­ical engi­neering, who died in June at the age of 85. “People,” he said, “need to know what kind of sci­en­tist and engi­neer he was.”

Gorlov, to be sure, left behind an impres­sive legacy of inven­tion and cre­ativity, with a par­tic­ular focus on har­nessing hydropower with an eye toward alle­vi­ating the world­wide energy crisis. His most pres­ti­gious invention—the inex­pen­sive, dam-​​free, and envi­ron­men­tally friendly Gorlov Helical Tur­bine, which extracts power from free-​​flowing currents—won the 2001 Amer­ican Society of Mechan­ical Engi­neers Thomas A. Edison Patent Award and was named one of Pop­ular Science’s top inven­tions of the year.

The tur­bine, whose ver­tical design enables it to extract up to 35 per­cent more energy from water than the typ­ical hor­i­zontal struc­ture, is cur­rently being used to power some 500 homes on the Korean island of Jindo. “The tur­bine was an absolutely bril­liant idea,” said Martsinkovsky, who met Gorlov on Northeastern’s campus in 1990 and later worked as part of a two-​​person team to help him to com­pute the turbine’s effi­ciency. “You could feel a touch of genius there.”

Gorlov him­self touted the beauty of the tur­bine back in 2011, shortly after he was nom­i­nated for a Euro­pean Inventor Award in recog­ni­tion of his achieve­ment. “My tur­bine has no neg­a­tive impact on the envi­ron­ment,” he explained. “Con­ven­tional tur­bines that require dams inter­fere with migrating fish and other water habitats.”

A ‘chance encounter’

Gorlov was born in Moscow in 1931. His father, a suc­cessful lawyer, was arrested and killed in prison during Joseph Stalin’s purges in 1938. His mother, for her part, spent sev­eral years in Russian con­cen­tra­tion camps, forcing her son to live out some of his child­hood in an orphanage in a small town 1,000 miles from Russia’s cap­ital. He earned his bachelor’s degree in bridge and tunnel engi­neering from the Moscow Insti­tute of Trans­port Engi­neers in 1954 and then went on to receive his doc­torate in mechan­ical and struc­tural engi­neering in 1961 with the goal of building under­ground tun­nels and power stations.

It’s pos­sible to trace Gorlov’s fas­ci­na­tion with dam-​​free hydropower back to the late 50s and early ’60s, when he helped to design Egypt’s Aswan Dam. The con­struc­tion project tamed the Nile’s floods but also destroyed hun­dreds of ancient mon­u­ments from Egypt’s Pharaonic past, leading him to con­clude during a 2001 lec­ture at North­eastern that the “Con­struc­tion of mas­sive dams is the evil of con­ven­tional hydropower systems.”


I was always impressed by his approach to solving prob­lems. He was a good thinker and he took his time to come up with beau­tiful solu­tions.
— Alexander Martsinkovsky, a long­time friend and colleague

Gorlov might have gone on to invent his dam-​​free tur­bine in Russia had it not been for an unusual twist of fate on Aug. 12, 1971. It was on that day that Gorlov fol­lowed through on a request from his friend Alexander Solzhen­itsyn, the Russian nov­elist and out­spoken critic of com­mu­nism, who had asked him to drop by his cot­tage to pick up a spare part for his car. When Gorlov arrived, according to his memoir Inci­dent At A Summer House: A Chance Encounter at Solzhenitsyn’s Dacha, the front door was unlocked and a team of about 10 KGB agents was inside. “Gorlov was grabbed, knocked to the floor, dragged face down into the woods and beaten viciously,” according to an open letter from Solzhen­itsyn to the USSR’s then min­ister of state secu­rity. The raid’s “senior intruder” issued a firm warning to Gorlov, which he recalled upon reporting the inci­dent to Solzhen­itsyn, who then described the scene in his letter: “If Solzhen­itsyn finds out what took place at the dacha, you’re fin­ished. Your career will go no fur­ther; this will affect your family, your chil­dren, and if nec­es­sary, we will put you inside.”

Gorlov was branded an anti-​​Soviet activist, black­balled from acad­emia, and forced to emi­grate to the U.S., leaving behind his life in Russia for good. But he ended up making the most of his fresh start, becoming a pro­lific engi­neer of inter­na­tional renown. In 1976, he joined the fac­ulty at North­eastern, where he cre­ated the Hydro-​​Pneumatic Power lab­o­ra­tory with the goal of extracting power from tidal energy. He pub­lished more than 100 tech­nical papers and books and held 25 patents in fields ranging from struc­tural analysis to the­o­ret­ical mechanics. One of his inventions—which he dubbed the “Ter­rorist Truck-​​Bomb Pro­tec­tion System”—was designed to foil car bombers and was placed on the Depart­ment of State’s list of cer­ti­fied equip­ment. He retired from teaching in 2001, but con­tinued to apply for grants and offer his exper­tise to student-​​researchers for the next decade.

His is a story of resilience and cre­ativity and inven­tive­ness,” said Sheila Puffer, Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. Puffer inter­viewed Gorlov in Sep­tember for her forth­coming book The Soviet Dias­pora in the U.S. Inno­va­tion Economy: Immi­gra­tion, Inno­va­tion, Imprinting, and Iden­tity, which will chron­icle the suc­cess of a highly accom­plished group of inven­tors, aca­d­e­mics, and entre­pre­neurs who emi­grated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. begin­ning in the 1970s. “The con­tri­bu­tions he made to engi­neering are highly sig­nif­i­cant and his will to carry on was remarkable.”

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering