Technical drawing

Exclusive: The real history of tractors in the Ukraine

We present a literary exclusive: The true story of the real engineer behind global best-seller 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian', as presented by the author – his daughter.

Internationally best-selling British novelist Marina Lewycka has offered E&T readers a very special Christmas gift - notes and drawings of her late father, engineer Peter Lewyckyj - prototype of Nikolai Mayevsky, the protagonist of "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" - this century's most famous work of fiction with an engineer as the main character. This extraordinary book, which has so far sold well over a million copies worldwide, is a story of two British-Ukrainian sisters, whose elderly father - a somewhat naive airy-fairy widower in his 80s - falls under the spell of a buxom thirty-something blonde gold-digger from Ukraine. "A Short History…" is moving, entertaining and profoundly human in its message.

Marina has kindly agreed to contribute to E&T an exclusive essay about her Dad and his similarities (as well as differences) with Nikolai Mayevsky (see below).

But before I leave you in the engaging company of Marina and her father, I'd like to say this. Translating Peter's Lewyckyj's notes gave me enormous pleasure - and not just because I too was born and spent my childhood and youth in Ukraine. The character, clearly seen behind Mr Lewyckyj's scribbles, was truly extraordinary. No matter what he was writing about, be it general trends of history, Fowler's steam ploughs or his first skating experience in 1920s Kiev, he always stayed true to himself - a thinker, a poet, and - first and foremost -  an engineer par excellence, intensely curious about the world around him and willing to make it better. Not just an intellectual, but also, as they say in Ukraine and in Russia, "intellighent" - a member of intelligentsiya.

"Intellighent" is a rather hard-to-explain concept, the best (to my mind) definition of which was once offered by Anton Chekhov - "someone who feels personal guilt for every single injustice in the world."

While we were preparing Mr. Lewyckyj's manuscripts for publication, Marina said to me that her father would have loved the idea of sharing his thoughts and observations with fellow engineers all over the world, but particularly in Britain, his adopted country for which he had an undying affection.

Please meet Peter Lewyckyj and his daughter Marina.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor of E&T


My father

by Marina Lewycka

My father Peter Lewyckyj was born on 25th October 1912 and died on 5th November 2007, but true to the end to his commitment to science, he donated his body for medical research, so it was not until almost two years later that he was cremated. This summer, looking through his papers in preparation for the event, I came across the original manuscript of A History of Engineering (Technology), after which my own novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was named. It was short, it was in Ukrainian, and the forty or so pages which survive are mostly about tractors.  It is possible that this was the first chapter on a more ambitious and wide-reaching work on engineering, but, typically, he got sidetracked - maybe even seduced - by tractors, especially the vast steam engines which in those days could still be found touring the country fairs in Lincolnshire.

My father started writing this work when he retired, and I remember the excitement with which he would hurry off to the local library and order the thick hard-back tomes on engineering, which he would pore through with great enthusiasm. The ‘tractor' sections in my own book start, as my father's did, with John Fowler, the Quaker engineer who pioneered the steam plough in the 1850s. But whereas my father was intrigued by the unfolding history of technological innovation, the history of tractors in my novel is mainly a slightly off-beat social and political history of the century that my father lived through: two world wars, the Russian revolution, forced collectivization and famine in Ukraine, the dustbowl and the Great Depression, peace and prosperity, and the role of the tractor in all of this.

When I made the decision to include this in my novel, my heart sank as I thought of the research I would have to do, remembering the heavy diagram-and-formula-laden tomes my father had consulted. But times had changed, and the internet came to my aid. Cyberspace, I found, was full of tractor enthusiasts, all eager to share their passion. I found it easy to populate my pages with real historic machines - Ford, Ferguson, Marshall, John Deere, the caterpillar, and many more. But I lacked my father's confidence that readers would find this topic endlessly fascinating, so I put all the ‘tractor history' sections in italics, so that the non-technical reader would find them easy to skip. I'm sorry to say I particularly had my women readers in mind.

I must admit, no one was more astonished than me when this oddly-titled book went on to sell more than a million copies, and be translated into thirty-five languages. And this despite the fact that it was initially classified by Amazon under Agricultural History. The first ever Amazon reader's review said, somewhat unfairly, "BE WARNED: this book has nothing to do with tractors. The author should be ashamed of herself."

The hero of the book, the engineer, poet, and hopeless romantic dupe Nikolai Mayevsky, owes much to my father, Peter Lewyckyj.  I'm often asked where one ends and the other begins. This is not a simple question to answer, for in writing a work of fiction there comes a point when the characters, even though they start off with a real-life counterpart, take on a life and energy of their own, and start to dictate to the author.  I could never have created Nikolai Mayevsky without having known my father, but in the end my father was a different, more complex and maybe a more tragic figure. Life, unlike fiction, is full of rough edges, false starts and red herrings - fiction selects from life, reorganises it, ‘tidies it up', and invents what is needed to hold the story together.

In the 1930s my father and his younger sister both studied Aeronautics at the prestigious Kiev Polytechnic Institute, The National Technical University of Ukraine, whose distinguished alumni include Serhei Korolyev, who could claim to be the father of space flight, Igor Sikorski, who invented the helicopter, and aircraft designer Aleksandr Mikulin. His sister, Natalia Lewycka (married name Natalia Schapiro) stayed in the Soviet Union, and went on to invent a ‘folding aeroplane' (it was just the wings that folded upwards, I think.)  Once in Britain, my father never quite fulfilled his potential as an engineer. Life was hard, the priority was putting food on the table for his family, and he ended up working mainly as a draughtsman in a succession of smallish engineering firms in the north of England. He withdrew into himself and his family, and poured his creativity into poetry, translation, and  the eccentric DIY initiatives which adorned our family home.

Like Nikolai Mayevsky, my father never lost his inventiveness nor his curiosity to try new things. After my mother died, cooking (he loved the hi-tech capability of his Toshiba microwave) and sewing (adapting his shop-bought clothes to idiosyncratic but comfortable all-in-one garments comprising shirts attached to pyjama bottoms) were added to his repertoire. When he lived in a sheltered housing flat, he continued to invent and adapt his surroundings with labour-saving devices cobbled together from string, sticky tape, bits of wood scavenged from skips, and some rather hair-raising electrical installations. He also continued to write, both poetry and prose.

When I visited Japan recently, where A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has just been published, I was often asked whether the recipe for Toshiba apples is genuine. I can confirm that it was, though it was not actually written down, and may have narrowly missed publication. Among his papers, I found this tantalising fragment of a letter to the Editor of The Independent newspaper.

Having read in The Independent newspaper (Saturday 14th August) about your orchard, a thought occurred to me that the marketing problems for Bramley apples could be eased, if new ways of preparing cooking apples, particularly in microwave oven, would be widely publicised. Recently I have found

My father didn't actually get to read my book until the Russian language version came out in 2007, by which time he was 95. His eyesight and concentration were not good by then, but he obviously enjoyed it, because once when my daughter was visiting he thrust his copy into her hands, saying ‘You must read this. It's very good. I've no idea who it's by.'


"A History of Engineering"

by Peter Lewyckyj


"From my window, I can see a nice well-ploughed field nearly one square kilometre (100 hectares) large. The density of population per 1 km here in Britain is a bit over 1000. Yet we can only see one person, or maximum two people, on this field at any given time and altogether for no longer than two weeks a year. This is the situation now, but only some 150 years ago up to 200 peasants were working here. In Great Britain, there are now 160,000 farmers and 120,000 farmhands - that is respectively 0.29% and 0.21% of the overall population of 56,000, 000 - more capitalists than proletarians, as a Marxist would put it. Let professors of History and Sociology decide whether the above proportion is positive or not (they are bound to say it all depends on how you look at it, I am sure). Henry Ford once said: "History is more or less bunk. What really matters is the history we are making now." Let's not waste our time trying to understand if this is true or not, but the fact remains: if only recently "industrialisation" was the order of the day, now - all over the so-called "First World" (as opposed to the Third World, no doubt) - we are experiencing "de-industrialisation". The same academics can now conclude that if it was "industrial revolution" that started 250 years ago, then now we may be facing the beginning of an industrial "counter-revolution". All those are nothing but abstract words. One scholar may assert that history is a self-regulating, immanent and spontaneous flow of spiritual culture, with material values being of secondary importance. The other would disagree by saying that production forces are at the base of both industrial relations and human thought. I am of the opinion that there's a grain of truth in either of the above viewpoints, but only just a grain…

Here I am - trying to write something "readable" about history of technology, and MY grain of truth must be that in the centre of it all are living people, their brains and hands, and only then all the tools they held in their hands: sparks from the early Palaeolithic flint, feathers that became pens used by Newton and Leibniz, first support for a lathe, 19th century microscopes and 20th century radio telescopes, which can now measure the distance to the stars beyond the Milky Way…"

"… History of technology has not been as bloody as that of wars and revolutions. In it, the defeated does not get murdered; more often than not the loser, who often used to be a winner at some point in the past, leaves the stage voluntarily to be replaced by somebody else. It wasn't always like that though. At times, new technologies arrived alongside epidemics of unsustainable political doctrines, like it happened in Ukraine in the 1930s, when the appearance of new agricultural machinery coincided with devastating artificially engineered famine. It was politicians (Joseph Stalin, to be more exact), not engineers, however, who were to blame for all those millions of deaths.

On the other hand, alongside some political change, one truly long-lasting result of the 1845 famine in Ireland, when nearly all the country's potato harvest had been blighted, was that a group of young British engineers started seriously thinking of how to plough the land better.  That also coincided with a general upsurge in the British economy, triggered by the "railway revolution" of 1825-35. From then - not a single famine has ever struck either Ireland or any other country of Western Europe…"

"…There have been attempts at building "iron horses" long before John Fowler (1826 - 1864), but he was the first to have taken a truly radical step, having discarded all sorts of "horses" - both living and iron ones. He proved that a plough could be (and had to be, as he thought) pulled across the field by a steel cable, whereas a heavy steam engine could be left at a distance, on a more solid ground, and move along slowly - step by step. That thought was like a breath of fresh air and it had proved a complete success during the last ten years of Fowler's short life. Forty years on, the innovative idea had conquered the whole of the British Empire and continental Europe, yet soon disappeared without a trace pushed out by further onslaught of creative engineering decisions…"

"Let's have a quick look back at the history of ploughs. For centuries, they used to be dragged by horses or mules. It was not only the poor animals who were having hard time, the ploughman himself had to constantly strain his muscles to keep the furrow straight and to turn the plough 180 degrees at the start and at the end of it. Have a look at Leo Tolstoy's plough - its ploughshare made of wood. Could such a plough dig into the ground and turn it over effectively? Compare it to the one of a European (in this case British) peasant… Then, in the first half of the 19th century, steam engines were already used in threshing machines (locomobiles). But all attempts to create "an iron horse", something similar to a modern-day tractor, were unsuccessful. The wheels - no matter how large they were - would inevitably and irretrievably sink into the soft ground under the weight of the machinery and of dung mixed with water. Some inventors tried to add moveable wooden extensions to them, but it appeared impossible to make the latter both strong and light enough and to attach them to the wheels properly, for the forces of inertia would take over, in case the former were too heavy…"

"… It goes without saying that Fowler's steam ploughs were twice or thrice more powerful than threshing machines. That guaranteed speedy and high-quality ploughing on solid ground, with the furrow's depth no less than 10 inches (254 mm). Capital investment in the project was enormous by anyone's standards, for normally it was only the contractor servicing a large number of farms who was able to provide enough work for such engines. They could make their own way from one farm to another, and were often pulling a rather comfortable driver's "hut on wheels" behind them. In the early 1860s, Britain already had over 300 steam ploughs at work, and two thirds of them were made by Fowler and his subordinates. Yet, export trade was still slow: only 5 sets of machinery were sold to Germany, despite the fact that Fowler had won first prizes for them at several trade fairs in Hamburg. Several ploughs were also sold to Holland. Eventually, British colonial governments began to show some interest: orders started trickling in from the West Indies (mainly from Jamaica) and from British Guiana, where they were used to prepare the ground for sugar-beet planting. Soon Cuba, then a Spanish colony, began ordering the ploughs for the same purpose…"


Peter Lewyckyj's poems

Last Autumn

In memory of my plum tree, which fell down and perished, having borne too many fruit one autumn

Forget the nightingale who used to sing in your branches in spring,

Forget your plums under downpours in summer.

That old nightingale is not singing any more;

He nearly forgot how to fly too…

Tell your loved one for the last time

About that autumn full of blind despair;

About the battle of clouds above our heads

With autumn's nights - both long and vicious…

Tell your loved one for the last time…

But where is your loved one, where is she?

She is already flying up there in blue skies,  

She has become a bird - and you won't find her ever again…

… Flying is hard, and her strength is petering out,

But she must keep flying, for Winter is approaching…


Alchemist's Concoction

(Almost a parody of A. Rimbaud - 8 lines, but not an octave)

Bite the pungent grain of truth

Off the black rocks of faithlessness and anguish.

Then add a cubic millimetre of modernity

And a tear drop of sentimentality.

Mix it all well and pour out onto your palm,

So that the solution could burn through it.

Then leave it to cool down on the table -

Your newly made little diamond,

Which can easily cut through the glass…

(Both poems rhyme beautifully in their Ukrainian original)

translated from Ukrainian by Vitali Vitaliev


Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles