Book Summary: “Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines” by Vaclav Smil

Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines

Title: Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines
Author: Vaclav Smil
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Smil explores the role of diesel engines and gas turbines in the transportation networks that undergird globalization.

Key Take-aways

  • The two dominant “prime movers” of globalization are diesel engines used for trucking and maritime transportation and gas turbines used for aviation and electricity production.
  • Despite their importance both technologies took decades to move from idea to prototype to marketable product to a sizable market share.
  • The cost, efficiency, reliability, and durability of diesel engines offer a combination that has not been surpassed by any other energy converter.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

Sails were the prime movers of this pioneering wave of globalization that began at the beginning of the sixteenth century and lasted for just over three centuries.

Two advances made steamships the dominant means of transport and by far the most important prime movers of the second, more concentrated, and more intensive wave of globalization that began before the middle of the nineteenth century and that was abruptly terminated by World War I. First, inefficient and inherently slow paddle wheels were replaced by screw propellers…  Second, the rising power and efficiency of steam engines enabled the construction of much more massive ships with metal hulls that could travel faster without increasing their demand for coal. Iron hulls came first in the 1840s, and after the inexpensive steel made in Bessemer converters (introduced in the late 1850s) became widely available, superior all-steel hulls followed in the 1860s. The combination of the best steam engines and steel hulls introduced the age of the giant Atlantic liners of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

The third wave of globalization — the post-1945 era of rising interdependence and integration that has made the extent and the intensity of today’s global economy possible — has been physically enabled by two different prime movers — (1) high-compression, non-sparking, internal-combustion engines, which were invented and developed to the point of first commercial applications by Rudolf Diesel (1858 – 1913) in the 1890s, and (2) gas turbines, whose first successful prototypes were designed by Frank Whittle (1907 – 1996) and Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain (1911 –1998) in the 1930s.

The engines are neither the cause nor even a principal cause of globalization. The human quest for a higher standard of living, profits, and power and the human propensities for long-distance trade and exploration have been the key motivating forces. But without the two prime movers, trade would not have achieved its truly planetwide scope or have done so at such massive scales, at such rapid speed, and at such affordable costs.

No technical inventions arise entirely and instantly de novo . A closer look at the history of their development shows often long periods of theoretical gestation or preliminary exploratory experiments or an interaction of both. For decades, such processes may not result in any practical products, but they help to constrain the parameters of eventual viable designs. Eventually, this protracted evolution may bring an entirely new departure — a new class of machines, a new kind of material or compound, or a new process of extraction, conversion, or production.

The kingdom of engines has two distinct phyla — one using external combustion and the other using internal combustion. Steam engines and steam turbines are the prime examples of the first kind; reciprocating steam engine is now only of historic interest, but steam turbines (which receive highly pressurized superheated steam from large boilers) are the world’s most powerful continuously working machines and generate most of the world’s electricity.

During the early 1880s, the miraculous decade of the second industrial revolution, Charles Algernon Parsons (1854 – 1931) set out to design a steam turbine — the machine that eventually became the most powerful commonly used prime mover of modern civilization and an indispensable means of generating most of the world ’ s electricity — because the advances in theoretical thermodynamics made it clear to him that it could be done.

The decisive breakthrough in commercial shipping came on November 4, 1911, when the Danish Selandia, the 6,800-dwt freight and passenger ship, became the first ocean-going vessel with diesel engines.

After World War I, diesels rapidly completed their conquest of shipping propulsion.

Yet another major advance in the transition to diesels was achieved before World War I. In 1913 came the completion and tests of the first large diesel-powered locomotive.

No other prime mover has seen such a rapid rate of commercialization as gas turbines in flight. Their development can be fortuitously divided into distinct decades. The first period, 1936 to 1945, entails the years of pioneering designs and tests of gas turbines in the United Kingdom and Germany and the deployment of first turbojets in military aircraft. The second period, 1946 to 1955, encompassed the years of rapid performance advances of turbojet engines, their deployment in many fighters and bombers, and the beginning of the commercial turbojet era. The third period, 1956 to 1965, saw the real beginning of turbojet-driven commercial aviation, the rapid conversion from piston aircraft to jetliners in long-distance flight, and the introduction of the first turbofan engines. The fourth period, 1966 to 1975, witnessed the maturation of aviation gas-turbine design with the triumph of large turbofans leading to the birth of inexpensive, mass-scale intercontinental airline travel in wide-body jetliners.

Those innovations have come from the large R & D teams of the world’s three leading designers and builders of gas turbine aero-engines — from General Electric’s aeroengine division (headquartered in Cincinnati), Pratt & Whitney (whose headquarters are in Hartford, Connecticut), and Rolls-Royce (whose world headquarters are in London).

The global economy transports raw materials and manufactured products on a scale that was not easily imaginable even as recently as the middle of the twentieth century. At that time, there were no supertankers bringing oil from the Middle East to Japan, Europe, and North America; no enormous bulk carriers carrying iron ore or coal from Brazil and Australia to China; and both the container vessel and the liquefied natural gas tanker were yet to be invented. The radical changes of all of these realities were made possible by developing more powerful, more efficient, more reliable, and less polluting diesel engines.

No other system has contributed as much to the globalization of trade and to the rise of the global supply chain of economic interdependence as the adoption of intermodal container transportation.

The prospects for diesel engines and gas turbines are bright. If I had to select only two key attributes to explain both their ascendance and assured prospects, it would be their range of commercially available power ratings and their relatively high conversion efficiency. Both diesel engines and gas turbines are now available in versions ranging from a few to about 100 MW, and their conversion efficiencies approach or surpass 40 percent and (for low-speed diesels) even 50 percent, a combination that makes them superior to any alternative.

When examining the history of civilization by following the genesis and adoption of technical inventions and innovations, we should place the prime movers at the center of attention.

Diesel engines have already accumulated seven decades of prime-mover primacy in intercontinental ocean transportation, and gas turbines have entered the sixth decade of being the sole prime mover of long-distance flight. In neither case are any technically outstanding, commercially viable replacements on the near- to midterm horizon.

The cost, efficiency, reliability, and durability of diesel engines offer a combination that has not been surpassed by any other energy converter. Even if a new candidate for substitution were to emerge soon, we must remember that energy transitions — whether they involve shifts to new fuels or shifts to new prime movers — are inherently slow processes whose time spans are measured in decades, not in years.

Although there can be no single date marking the commercial maturity of diesel engines, it is easy to conclude that the years 1910 to 1912 — when the total capacity of diesel engines in operation or under construction passed 1 million bhp and when the Selandia  , Fionia  , Fram  , and Christian X  began to demonstrate the superiority of diesels in maritime transport — were the undeniable beginning of a widely recognized success and enormous prospects. This means that we are about to enter the second century of diesel-powered shipping. Remarkably, after it has gradually conquered all but a tiny share of its potential market, the engine’ s place remains secure as the least expensive, most reliable, and most powerful prime mover of goods, bulk or packaged, by ships or by trucks (it has an appealing alternative in electrified trains).

  1. “Energy Transitions” by Vaclav Smil
  2. “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations” by Robert Bryce
  3. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil…” by Daniel Yergin
  4. “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” by Ian Morris
  5. “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries” by Kander et al

If you would like to learn more about technology in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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