The Machine That Goes Everywhere

A Soviet Yiddish kid’s book imagines a future of unlimited transportation

Published on March 08, 2024.

As a boy, I could often be found staring in awe as great big dump trucks, excavators, airplanes, and more roared across my parent’s TV screen. What grasped my attention so thoroughly was Mighty Machines, a staple of children’s programming on Ontario’s public-access TV channel, TVOKids.

Cover of M. Ilin's "Umetumgeyer" sits on a wooden table.
We may already be familiar with the methods of transportation on the cover of M. Ilin's Umetumgeyer, but many new contraptions await us inside!

Yet the captivating magic of machines goes back much farther than my childhood obsession. In 1933, engineer and author of popular science books for kids M. Ilin—the pseudonym of Ilya Yakovlevich Marshak, younger brother of famed Soviet Jewish children’s author Samuil Marshak—was busy bringing the wonders of all the new advances in transportation technology to Soviet children. Translated from his original 1930 Russian text, Der umetumgeyer (The Go-Everywhere Machine) paints a picture of the future of human transportation:

Is it made up, or is it true? Does it already exist, or will it never be real? It doesn’t exist yet, but it will. It’s possible that in our own century someone will build such a machine; a machine that can fly, sail, dive, walk, and jump too. There won’t be a single obstacle that could stop the Go-Everywhere Machine. (pp. 4–5)
װאָס איז עס–אנ אױסטראכטעניש צי אנ עמעס? צי איז דאָס געװענ, צי דאָס װעט קײנאָל ניט זײַנ? דאָס איז ניט געװענ, אָבער דאָס װעט זײַנ. מעגלעכ, אז נאָכ אינ אונדזער יאָרהונדערט װעט מענ אױסבױענ אזא אפּאראט, װאָס װעט אי פליענ, אי שװימענ, אי טױכנ, אי גײנ, אי שפּרינגענ. קײנ שום שטערונגענ װעלנ ניט זײַנ פארנ אומעטומגײער. (ז' 5–4)

A succinct introductory note to the Yiddish edition provides some context. It was the beginning of the second finfyor (Five-Year Plan), and industrialization was the watchword of the day. Quoting Stalin—“technology determines everything”—the unnamed editor informs us in no uncertain terms that mastery of technology is not only key to the future of transportation and connection but also an essential ingredient in the success of the socialist project.

Open page of M. Ilin's "Umetumgeyer" sits against a wooden table
Among Ilin's many magical machines is the avtomobil af fis (the Automobile on Feet)

After detailing all the various technological hurdles that have to be overcome before the Go-Everywhere Machine can leave the realm of science-fiction—and the various machines that might be invented along the way such as the Crawling Tractor and the All-Terrain Tank—Ilin concludes with a note on the promise of this new technology, every bit as disheartening in hindsight as it was optimistic in its contemporary moment:

One could call the previous century—the century of the track. In 1830 the first railroad was built . . . But the coming century will be a century of free movement. (p. 32)
דעמ פארגאנגענעמ יאָרהונדערט װאָלט מענ געקאָנט אָנרופנ—יאָרהונדערט פונ װעג. 1830 יאָר האָט מענ אױסגעבױט דעמ ערשטנ אײַזנבאנ . . . אָט איז אָנגעקומענ א נײַער יאָרהונדערט—א יאָרהונדערט פונ אָנװעג. (ז' 32)
Banner of M. Ilin's "Umetumgeyer" hangs against a skylight
M. Ilin's Umetumgeyer hangs as a banner in the main hall of the Yiddish Book Center, on display as part of the core exhibition, Yiddish: A Global Culture

While the ambitions of unfettered mobility have yet to be realized—technologically or politically—Ilin’s Umetumgeyer is an imaginative reminder of the many forms of utopian thinking that found their home in the Yiddish word.

Caleb (Shmuel) Sher, Richard S. Herman Senior Bibliography Fellow

This post is one of a series expanding on books and artifacts found in our core exhibition, Yiddish: A Global Culture. Read more: