Journal of Global History


The two prime movers of globalization: history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines

Vaclav Smila1

a1 Faculty of Environment, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 2N2 Canada E-mail:


Modern economic globalization would be impossible without our ability to move billions of tonnes of raw materials and finished goods among the continents and to fly at speeds approaching the speed of sound. These realities were made possible by the interaction of economic and technical factors. Much has been written about their organizational and political underpinnings (ranging from the role of multinational corporations to the history of free trade agreements), but much less on the history of the two prime movers that made these realities possible. Neither steam engines, nor gasoline-fuelled engines could have accomplished comparable feats. Diesel engines made ocean shipping the cheapest mode of long-distance transport and without gas turbines there would be no fast, inexpensive, mass-scale intercontinental travel. This paper examines the history, advances, benefits and costs of the two prime movers.

Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada