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Hardcover | Out of Print | 272 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 42 b&w photos, 18 b&w illus., 13 maps | July 2010 | ISBN: 9780262014434
Paperback | $18.95 Trade | £14.95 | 272 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 42 b&w photos, 18 b&w illus., 13 maps | February 2013 | ISBN: 9780262518765
eBook | $13.95 Trade | July 2010 | ISBN: 9780262290326
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Prime Movers of Globalization

The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines


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.

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses and Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, both published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”

Table of Contents

  • Prime Movers of Globalization
  • Also by Vaclav Smil
  • China’s Energy
  • Energy in the Developing World
  • (editor, with W. E. Knowland)
  • Energy Analysis in Agriculture
  • (with P. Nachman and T. V. Long II)
  • Biomass Energies
  • The Bad Earth
  • Carbon—Nitrogen—Sulfur
  • Energy Food Environment
  • Energy in China’s Modernization
  • General Energetics
  • China’s Environmental Crisis
  • Global Ecology
  • Energy in World History
  • Cycles of Life
  • Energies
  • Feeding the World
  • Enriching the Earth
  • The Earth’s Biosphere
  • Energy at the Crossroads
  • China’s Past China’s Future
  • Creating the 20th Century
  • Transforming the 20th Century
  • Energy: A Beginner’s Guide
  • Energy in Nature and Society
  • Oil: A Beginner’s Guide
  • Global Catastrophes and Trends
  • Why America Is Not a New Rome
  • Two Prime Movers of Globalization
  • The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines
  • Vaclav Smil
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email .edu.
  • This book was set in Sabon by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Smil, Vaclav.
  • Prime movers of globalization : the history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines / Vaclav Smil.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01443-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
  • 1. Diesel motor—History. 2. Gas turbines—History. 3. Technology and civilization.  4. Transportation—Technological innovations—History. 5. Motor vehicles—Motors—History. 6. Globalization—History. I. Title.
  • TJ795.S5746 2010
  • 621.43—dc22
  • 2009049190
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • 1 Globalization Waves and Their Prime Movers 1
  • 2 Why Gasoline-Fueled Otto-Cycle Engines Would Not Do 21
  • 3 Diesel’s Engine 43
  • 4 Gas Turbines 79
  • 5 Two Prime Movers of Globalization 109
  • 6 Benefits and Costs 155
  • 7 Why the Two Engines Are Here to Stay 209
  • Glossary 235
  • References 237
  • Name Index 251
  • Subject Index 255
  • Prime Movers of Globalization


“By scrutinizing common yet often-overlooked technologies, Smil offers a fresh and useful perspective on world economics.”—Mark Reutter, Wilson Quarterly
“Mr. Smil's account of the engineering advances throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries—advances that brought the world large marine diesels and gas turbines—is first-rate history, both thorough and compelling.”—Nick Schulz, The Wall Street Journal


“A stimulating book that connects the past with the future, from an outstanding writer who knows all about sustainability and the issues that make it such a challenge for us.”
John B. Heywood, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Sun Jae Professor, Emeritus, MIT
“In Prime Movers, Smil's passion for the Cinderellas of civilization focuses on the diesel engines and gas turbines that power ocean vessels and wide-body jets. These engines have made ocean shipping and intercontinental air travel so cheap that they have changed the face of our planet. Marshall McLuhan's dreams of a Global Village have become true in unimagined ways. Being an engineer myself, I admire the way Smil portrays the human Cinderellas of the industrial world: the unsung engineers who made momentous advances in the reliability and efficiency of their machines. Smil's book makes me proud of my profession.”
Henk Tennekes, author of The Simple Science of Flight
“Smil masterfully traces the technological evolution and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines, and makes a convincing case for their role as prime movers of globalization—even though these technologies escape public notice, buried in the bowels of ships, trucks, and power plants, and humming reliably under the wings of planes.”
Rajan Gupta, Fellow, Los Alamos National Laboratory