Prime Movers of Globalization

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

Vaclav Smil
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Prime Movers of Globalization
    Book Description:

    The many books on globalization published over the past few years range from claims that the world is flat to an unlikely rehabilitation of Genghis Khan as a pioneer of global commerce. Missing from these accounts is a consideration of the technologies behind the creation of the globalized economy. What makes it possible for us to move billions of tons of raw materials and manufactured goods from continent to continent? Why are we able to fly almost anywhere on the planet within twenty-four hours? In Prime Movers of Globalization, Vaclav Smil offers a history of two key technical developments that have driven globalization: the high-compression non-sparking internal combustion engines invented by Rudolf Diesel in the 1890s and the gas turbines designed by Frank Whittle and Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain in the 1930s. The massive diesel engines that power cargo ships and the gas turbines that propel jet engines, Smil argues, are more important to the global economy than any corporate structure or international trade agreement. Smil compares the efficiency and scale of these two technologies to prime movers of the past, including the sail and the steam engine. The lengthy processes of development, commercialization, and diffusion that the diesel engine and the gas turbine went through, he argues, provide perfect examples of gradual technical advances that receive little attention but have resulted in epochal shifts in global affairs and the global economy.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28977-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. 1 Globalization Waves and Their Prime Movers
    (pp. 1-20)

    The phenomenon of globalization—the planet-spanning process of economic exchanges and information links, of complex flows of social and political influences, and of unprecedented environmental consequences—has been examined from many perspectives, with results ranging from highly arguable claims to insightful observations. The search for historical precedents has led to indefensible claims (such as Jack Weatherford’s 2004 conclusion that Genghis Khan was a thoroughly modern man who was committed to global commerce) and to simplistic misreadings of complex historical, social, and economic realities (such as Thomas L. Friedman’s 2005 exaggerated claims of a flat world). Among the most valuable contributions...

  4. 2 Why Gasoline-Fueled Otto-Cycle Engines Would Not Do
    (pp. 21-42)

    No technical inventions arise entirely and instantlyde 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. That was the case with the invention (and relatively rapid commercialization) of the...

  5. 3 Diesel’s Engine
    (pp. 43-78)

    Because Rudolf Diesel’s engines (generically,diesel engineor simplydiesel) power many road and off-road vehicles, rail locomotives, and ships, nearly everybody knows at least the name. Europeans are much more familiar with diesels than Americans because they use them as reliable and considerably less expensive alternatives to gasoline-fueled automotive engines: nearly half of all European passenger cars are now diesel-powered. The American public knows the diesel engine as the prime mover of trucks and agricultural and heavy off-road machinery, but it has been wary of using it in passenger vehicles. In 2005, merely 2 percent of all cars, pickups,...

  6. 4 Gas Turbines
    (pp. 79-108)

    When Frank Whittle wrote to R. D. Williams in the spring of 1935, prospects for developing his patented gas-turbine design were poor, but it did not take long before every opinion set down in that letter became a reality. The engine’s development did indeed cost a great deal of money, but the companies that eventually undertook it helped to pioneer a new and a highly profitable megaindustry, and it was the only way to fly high, above the weather, and close to the speed of sound. After the first practical prototypes of aircraft turbines were tested, their subsequent commercialization was...

  7. 5 Two Prime Movers of Globalization
    (pp. 109-154)

    Technical advances can be driven overwhelmingly by a singular preoccupation (such as maximized efficiency, increased overall power of an operation, or minimized environmental impacts) or by a combination of goals. The first instance (as the following examples show) is not uncommon. Improved efficiency has been the main aim for designers of the ever larger steam turbogenerators that now produce the bulk of the world’s electricity. Typical efficiencies of thermal electricity generation rose from just around 5 percent in 1900 to just over 20 percent by 1950 and about 35 percent by the beginning of the twenty-first century (Smil 2005). The...

  8. 6 Benefits and Costs
    (pp. 155-208)

    Neither diesel engines nor gas turbines were invented to fill some waiting market niches. Although Diesel had a particular market in mind for his new efficient engine (small manufacturers who could not afford a steam engine), that market soon found that electric motors were a more affordable, more reliable, more flexible, and easierto-use choice for an overwhelming number of applications. Whittle’s and von Ohain’s motivation was simply to design a better and, above all, a faster propulsion for airplanes. In both cases, during the earliest stages of developing their inventions, only the inventors themselves and a few of their early...

  9. 7 Why the Two Engines Are Here to Stay
    (pp. 209-234)

    A flippant answer to the question about the future of modern civilization’s two key prime movers would be to repeat Joel Mokyr’s summation of the frequency dependence in this chapter’s epigraph. Because only success succeeds and because the commercial success of the two inventions has gone far beyond what even their creators dared to dream, 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...

  10. Glossary
    (pp. 235-236)
  11. References
    (pp. 237-250)
  12. Name Index
    (pp. 251-254)
  13. Subject Index
    (pp. 255-261)