Book Review – "Mobility: Engines and Institutions"

This particular book review is somewhat serendipitous, as it resulted from a chance meeting between the book's author and me at a social event of my former school (the University of Washington). As far back as 17 years I already had the benefits of Prof. Decher's lectures on the topics of aerospace propulsion, thermodynamics, and energy conversion, and now I find myself in the odd position of "grading" his work in turn! However, those of you who might hope for a particularly feisty piece of online journalism in which I rip into my former teacher's latest publication will be disappointed – while "payback" now that the shoe is on the other foot may have been entertaining, the only thing I really have to pay him back for are several years of valuable education and engrossing intellectual challenges. And after having just finished reading his latest book it is very apparent that his knack to pose thought provoking questions hasn't diminished in the least since the days of me being an undergraduate!

At first glance you might be tempted to categorize "Mobility: Engines and Institutions" as a book about the history of the various engine types and their basic underlying engineering principles; however, that would be just as wrong as expecting a book on the history of the internet to discuss only CPU's. The title "Mobility" actually offers the first clue to what makes this book a whole lot more interesting than a simple account of the history of engines; because it looks at the activity of people "moving" themselves about in a much broader context. Of course, engines are at the heart of the matter (pun intended) and figure prominently in the story, but they are only one facet of many needed to make a person – or a society – mobile.

Organized in four main sections (or "stories") the book looks at mobility, its requirements, and its consequences from several different angles. Part one "Motive Power from Fuels" covers engines and their history. It starts out with the venerable steam engine, covers all other forms of piston engines, and then goes on to look at turbines and rocket engines. Aside from this standard fair – which is presented in layman's terms with minimal use of equations – there are also some of those thought provoking surprises like a discussion of Planet Earth itself as a heat engine.

Part two "The vehicles that require the engine's power" moves from engines to their applications in the various vehicles that make use of them The chapter addresses automobiles, trains, airplanes, ships, and space vehicles, discussing various measures of efficiency for each, their development history, state of the art, and possible future incarnations.

The third part "Infrastructure and the builders" is where the books becomes increasingly original and unique. Have you ever considered just how much infrastructure is required so you can turn that ignition key in the morning and head to work on your own schedule? Or how it came about that public funds carry the infrastructure for automobiles, but not that for railroad systems? In this section of the book the author presents a great discussion on these issues, and the historical backdrop which led to the state of affairs in various places of the world today.

Finally, the fourth and last part of the book "Is mobility a utility or a commodity?" takes a closer look at the interdependencies of mobility and society, and some of the choices we (as a society) will have to face in the near future. From the fundamental issue of continuing to pursue an energy-intensive way of life, to the allocation of resources and responsibilities to maintain that life-style, the book leverages the understanding developed in the previous chapters to take the reader through a thoughtful discussion of these complex questions.

As an experienced engineer, I have come across many texts on the history of engines before; what sets this one apart is its successful use of basic scientific truths (e.g. the laws of thermodynamics) in examining the bigger context of how society has evolved to apply this knowledge in the aim of making us mobile. Whether you are an engineer, an interested lay person, or a high-powered policy maker, this book will expand your thinking on what it takes to makes us mobile as a society, the associated benefits, the price we pay, and the physical boundaries of what is possible going forward. A very worthwhile read!

Title : Mobility: Engines and Institutions Author : Reiner Decher Length : 145 pages Publisher : VTD Rail Publishing Date : 2008 ISBN : 978-0-97 19915-5-2

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