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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 369-370
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The Diesel Revolution
The Diesel Revolution. Edited by Mark Reutter. Westford, Mass.: Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, 2000. Pp. 160. $7.50.
The new editor of the biannual periodical Railroad History, Mark Reutter, has creatively assembled a special issue on the diesel revolution. Most of the contributions originated as presentations to an April 1999 gathering of academics, industry specialists, and enthusiasts, who met at the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library in St. Louis to consider the "Railroad Revolution: How the Diesel Locomotive Changed America." Understandably, the thirteen essays included in this modest volume offer convincing evidence that the diesel-electric locomotive was the "machine that saved the railroads."
The range is extensive. Arguably the most significant contributions are "Business Strategies and Diesel Development," by Albert J. Churella, and "Learning from America?" by Colin Divall. Churella does much to explain why the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors came to dominate the [End Page 369] industry after World War II. American Locomotive and Baldwin, the two largest producers of steam locomotives, initially regarded diesels as an adjunct technology to round out their product lines. Executives at these firms failed to grasp the potential of this replacement technology, and by the time they did there was little hope that they could successfully challenge General Motors. The Electro-Motive Division, on the other hand, exploited earlier efforts with internal-combustion rail vehicles and unquestionably thought "outside the box."
Divall shows that in the 1930s and 1940s several British railroads, especially the Southern Railway and the London, Midland, and Scottish, expressed interest in the process of dieselization in America. Without doubt America was involved in cutting-edge technology. But in the final analysis, Divall writes, "Britain's railway managers 'learnt' very little from the American experience of dieselization" (p. 138). The overall nature of British railroading differed considerably from that of the United States, except perhaps in switching yards, and in any case, as Divall notes, "Even when there is a physical transfer of equipment as well as of ideas from one country to another, it is rare for either to escape modification in the recipient culture" (p. 139).
When a collection of symposium papers appears in a published format, even after judicious editing, there is commonly a lack of unity. The Diesel Revolution, however, is a pleasant exception. Although there is some repetition, each article stands alone and is connected fully to the topic. An additional attraction of this publication is the high quality of the illustrations, particularly the photo essay contributed by prizewinning photographer and University of Texas engineering professor J. Parker Lamb, who provides striking images of America's first-generation diesel-electric locomotives. One hopes that this special issue of Railroad History will enjoy a wide readership. It is a valuable starting point for anyone interested in the impact of diesel-electric technology on twentieth-century railroading.
H. Roger Grant
Dr. Grant, professor of history at Clemson University in South Carolina, is the author of many books in railroad history, including the prizewinning North Western: A History of the Chicago and North Western Railway System (1996).
Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.