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  • Evolution of the American Diesel Locomotive
  • Maury Klein (bio)
Evolution of the American Diesel Locomotive. By J. Parker Lamb. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Pp. x+184. $39.95.

This handsome, loving account of the American diesel locomotive will likely appeal more to railroad buffs and railroaders than to historians. J. Parker Lamb has compiled a thorough and lucid account of a technology that transformed American railroading. The diesel locomotive provides a classic example of what I have elsewhere called “replacement” technology— one that doesn’t refine or improve an existing version but performs its function in an entirely different way. From its crude beginnings in the 1920s the diesel locomotive evolved into a machine so superior to its steam counterpart that it rendered the latter obsolete by the 1950s. It remains today the backbone of railroad operations.

Lamb provides the reader with detailed descriptions of every generation [End Page 803] of diesel locomotive along with a generous supply of excellent photographs. He tracks the rise and fall of the companies that produced this new breed of power. Although the major manufacturers of steam locomotives, most notably Alco and Baldwin, moved into the diesel field, they ultimately lost out to two industrial giants from outside the railroad industry, General Electric and General Motors through its Electro-Motive Division.

Like so many other devices, the diesel locomotive underwent a transformation during the 1970s as the electronics revolution infiltrated its components. Lamb notes the advantages that arose when the “solid-state revolution . . . enabled a complex web of wiring to be reduced to the size of a large envelope (circuit board) and placed within sealed modules that sat inside environmentally controlled cabinets” (p. 137). The result was not only an increase in reliability but also a nearly instantaneous means of testing and repair merely by replacing a board and analyzing the flawed one.

The widespread use of superchargers characterized a second generation that by the 1990s evolved into a new and more powerful type of diesel locomotive. From the first, they had run on DC power despite repeated efforts to develop an AC traction motor. Lamb does a good job of explaining the technical problems involved and the solutions that finally produced the first practical AC diesel locomotives in the early 1990s. The largest of these units reached 6,000 horsepower. Later development led to the creation of hybrid models using battery power to reduce pollution.

“A recurrent theme in technological evolution,” Lamb observes in his preface, “is incrementalism, with progress on various components occurring simultaneously in many locations. Thus an understanding of these precursor (or enabling) technologies is extremely important” (pp. ix–x). This observation serves as a framework for Lamb’s treatment of the diesel locomotive, and it might have become a unifying theme had he chosen to develop it in more detail. Although historians can learn much from his narrative, Lamb is less successful in providing a historical context for the diesel locomotive. His preface divides the story into five periods: internal-combustion- powered coaches, early diesel-electric locomotives, maturation period, electrical revolution, and manufacturing turnaround. However, his discussion is weak and ignores nearly all the basic scholarly literature relevant to the subject. There are no notes, and nearly half the items cited in the bibliography consist of articles from Trains magazine. Occasional bloopers mar the account, such as dating the Columbian Exposition to 1896 rather than 1893.

A retired engineer, Lamb clearly feels more at home in the technical rather than the historical dimensions of his story. He makes a concerted effort to explain the basic technical elements involved and supplements his descriptions with a large number of informative diagrams. Readers who are not engineers will benefit from these user-friendly explanations, although they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of models and their technical [End Page 804] features. In all, the book offers a convenient introduction to one of the most influential and far-reaching technologies of the twentieth century.

Maury Klein

Dr. Klein is professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of fifteen books. His latest is The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America...


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