In the first part of his presidential address, Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan outlines how harnessing energy to improve mobility has been the foundation for the development of many of the great empires in the world over the course of history

Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan gave his presidential address in the organisation’s headquarters in 22 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 on Thursday, 21 September. Here we provide a transcript of his speech. Read the second of this two-part series here.

I will examine how harnessing energy to improve mobility has been the foundation for the development of many of the great empires in the world over the course of history. Mobility has a number of different facets. Historically, the basis of engineering was military engineering and focused on the movement of armies and the movement of armaments.

More recently, certainly from Roman times, the civil aspects of engineering, working on behalf of the citizen, and the related movement of people and movement of goods have become much more important than the movement of armies and armaments in how our world functions.

I aim to show that when a new energy source has been identified and harnessed, particularly harnessed to aid and improve mobility, then a transformative step-change is created in the ability of a particular country or locality to rise above and in many cases dominate their neighbours, both locally and, more recently, globally.

We will briefly look at a number of different empires, the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, the Spanish Empire about 500 years ago, the British Empire 200 years ago, the American Empire which started c. 120 years ago, and then the Chinese Empire, a nascent empire which started within the past 15 years.

The world has again reached a point where the global economy will be changed utterly as a new source of energy (renewables) is coupled with transforming technology (the Internet of Things, big data, sensor technology) and transport solutions (autonomous and connected vehicles, electricity storage, hydrogen fuel cells, road networks as energy distributors) to produce winners and losers at enterprise and national scales.

Roman Empire

CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 1: Roman Empire Road Network c. 200 AD

An enormous key to the success and longevity of the Roman Empire was transport. The primary energy source was biomass or food for both animals and humans. There was widespread use of manpower, including slavery to move boats in particular, with a secondary source of wind energy for maritime transport. In road transport, the carts and chariots were typically towed by harnessed animals, but ultimately the animals in turn derive their energy from biomass.

Figure 1 shows the network generated stretching from Britain through the Low Countries and Western France, throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France and back to Rome from the West. To the East, the network stretched through the Balkans to Greece and Turkey, and back through the Holy Land to Egypt and North Africa, surrounding the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea.

The development of the Roman road network was the key support over time to the ability of the Roman Empire to control such a vast geographic area from Rome. This network of paved roads was primarily developed over a period of c. 200 years, and once it fell into disrepair with the fall of the Roman Empire, no similar network of roads existed for well over one thousand years.

The well-managed road network allowed the governance of landlocked areas and also allowed cities with ports to connect to one-another and to move resources from one part of the empire to the other. They formed the basis of the first reliable communication or postal system, and then very importantly formed the basis of towns evolving from way stations where animals were fed and rested.

The road trade and culture that evolved allowed the spread of ideas from one part of the empire to the other including the spread of Christianity from a relatively isolated and backward location in Palestine across the Roman Empire.

Effectively the Roman road network, supplemented by the maritime connections, facilitated ‘Pax Romana’, the Roman peace, that lasted for 400-500 years. In short, an Empire founded on a new transport technology, a road network and supporting maritime transport infrastructure.

Spanish Empire

CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 2: Spanish Empire extent

The first truly global Empire was the Spanish Empire, with a golden age between 1520 and 1640 – the original empire on which ‘the sun never set’. Fig 2 shows the Spanish Empire extended through North and South America, through significant parts of Africa, Asia, in the Philippines, particularly Malaysia with numerous trading posts through Africa and India, and all controlled by a relatively small country at the junction of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Spanish Empire was based on trading and exploitation of gold and silver from North and South America, and in trading with Asia in porcelain, silk, spices and jewels. The ability to move goods and people from continent to continent on the oceans was the key to the success of the Spanish Empire.

Spain’s neighbour, Portugal, had first mover advantage in terms of the development of sea-faring ships that could cross oceans and return, but very quickly the Spanish took the Portuguese design and improved them in their galleons.

Portuguese caravels were typically c. 250 tonnes and designed primarily for exploration. The Spanish carracks and galleons could carry in excess of 1000 tonnes, and formed the basis for the military and trade domination exerted by Spain.

Wind power was the innovative energy source, harnessed via new hull designs and engineering designs to allow much bigger boats to be built with lower friction with new and adapted sail technology to make them easier to navigate. And thus the Spanish, by tapping into a new energy source and harnessing it for mobility, formed the basis for their Empire.

British Empire

CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 3: British Commonwealth influence

Moving forward 200 years, a study is merited of the evolution of the British Empire with an Imperial century from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. Over that period of time, 25 million square kilometres and 450 million people, a very large proportion of the world’s population at that stage, were added to the empire. Where historically there had been a ‘Pax Romana’, there was now a ‘Pax Britannica’, where Britain was the undisputed world power, with direct economic control of many colonies and indirect economic control of many other territories including China and Argentina.

In Fig 3, the global reach is clearly evident, with aligned countries in North and South America and the Caribbean, very substantial colonies in Africa, across through the Indian Empire, down through Indonesia and on through Australia and New Zealand. This was a massive reach for an even smaller land area, in an even more remote part of Europe, when compared to Spain.

What was the basis for this growth, this ability of a small country to be the undisputed world power for over a century? Again, the contention is that it was the evolution of new transport modes in conjunction with a new energy source and technology. In transport modes, the turnpike roads that developed in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s were really the first major network of roads that were built since the Romans.

Some of the great engineering names, including Telford and McAdam, devised new and easier ways of constructing long-lasting and well-draining road surfaces that could take the repeated high loading of high pressure carriage wheels and allow much greater and less risky movement of people and goods and mail across the Britain and Ireland with animals as the primary source of energy.

At the same time that the turnpike roads were evolving, Britain was developing a new series of canals with features explicitly designed for transportation of goods on water, again using animals on the towpaths as the primary source of energy. In turn this development of canals opened up the interior of Britain, and the natural and mineral resources of Britain for mining and exploitation. Thus, by 1825 there was a network of turnpike roads of almost 18,000 miles in England and Wales, and a supportive canal system with towpaths that linked most of the central parts of England to the coast.

A new energy source was also revealed on a large scale, the use of coal as an energy source to power a new engineering technology, the steam engine, using high-pressure steam to move pistons. The steam engine in transport terms was applied originally in the mines in Cornwall. Spurred on by the development of the railway for transporting coal from mines to sea ports, George and Robert Stephenson produced the Rocket steam locomotive in 1829 and very quickly thereafter, a massive revolution of the transport space.

Brunel’s developments for the Great Western Railway linking Bristol to London in the 1850s, a mere 20-25 years after the first coupling of the steam engine with rail, involved the building of massive engineering structures, the railway termini which could handle large volumes of passengers moving in and out of the cities, as well as goods.

Much bigger steam locomotives were required that could deal with much greater loads of people and goods. Bridge crossings of much wider waterways than had ever been envisioned before were undertaken because of the need to keep railways on quite shallow gradients. Engineers no longer followed the landscape, but imposed a gradient on the landscape, and as a result needed both very large scale bridges and very significant tunnels.

While initially, the potential of the railways was primarily tapped to the benefit of the British Empire within the British Isles, it very rapidly became clear that they could be used to open up the most inaccessible areas of the Americas, of the Russian plains and steppes, of large parts of Australia, Africa and Asia, and in turn the resources in those areas became accessible and exploitable.

Railways were by far the cheapest way to move goods, especially high volume goods, such as mineral ore and coal. As cities and countries grew wealthy from this access to resources, it became clear that the cheapest way of moving commuters was also along the high-density corridors that railways could offer.

The British had also evolved their naval capabilities hugely before the 1800s, but Brunel, among others, exploited new technologies and new materials including steel and riveted cast iron that were available to create much bigger ships, using a new power source, high pressure steam, to replace wind power.

The first modern steamer, the Great Britain, developed in 1843 to cross the Atlantic, and still available to visit in Bristol, was almost 100 metres long, made of iron, a new material made for ships, and driven by propeller using coal/steam as a new primary source of power. A mere 15 years later, the Great Eastern steam ship, 210 metres long, was able to go to India and Australia from England and carry 4,000 passengers. The massive shift in capability and capacity is clear, again through the harnessing of a new source of energy, coal powered steam, to move people and goods, in this case to move people across oceans.

We have examined the direct development of these transport technologies, but in turn they drove associated developments. The need for steel to manufacture the railway termini as well as the rails, the buildings and structures that were needed in turn allowed the development of multi-storey steel structures, facilitating the development of cities of much higher densities such as London and New York than had ever been seen in world history.

And so the British Empire founded on coal/steam as a new energy source and linked through mobility to the development of railways and shipping, became the dominant economic power of the 19th century.

American Empire

CLICK TO ENLARGE Fig 4: Primary social network in 2017

Yet very quickly, the British Empire was surpassed by the American Empire, which realistically dates from around 1900. It is an empire unlike the British Empire in that it continues to be primarily a trading economic and cultural empire, rather than a military empire, but it is also the predominant global military force in the world. Fig 4 shows a reasonable surrogate for US influence, with the Facebook/Twitter countries having a large American cultural and economic influence.

The US economy grew and surpassed the British economy because it developed new energy sources and new forms of transportation/mobility, The United States in 1900 had abundant resources of coal and steel and was pioneering the initial development of electricity as a source of lighting, heating and power. Thomas Edison, developer of the lightbulb and many other inventions developed direct current (DC) power supply in the US in the 1880s/1890s. Tesla, an immigrant to the United States who originally worked with Edison but subsequently developed alternating current (AC) as the standard form of electricity from generation stations, both worked within a narrow space of time and geography to produce massive improvements and innovations in the area of energy.

By 1900, electricity was being generated in large volumes through hydroelectricity and coal burning generation and there was significant availability of electricity throughout the large cities and smaller provincial cities in the US.

John D Rockefeller was the key instigator in the discovery of a new energy source that would transform the globe in the 20th century. In his processing of natural oils to generate kerosene for heating and light, he realised there were many bye products from the distillation process that were not being used, and sought to find other uses for those by-products, in turn leading to the development of today’s oil and petrochemical industries.

The realisation that petrol and diesel ‘by-products’ could be used in conjunction with the German diesel and internal combustion engines as a new source of energy to link to road based and rail based vehicles was a transformative revelation. Henry Ford, he of Irish extraction, was the innovator who broke the mould by integrating and developing the use of an assembly line to speed up the manufacturing process, generating enormous efficiencies.

In 1926, Ford by himself was manufacturing 1.5 million vehicles a year, and this in conjunction with the other major US manufacturers became the basis for a new phenomenon, a new driver in global technology, the motor vehicle. Suddenly there was competition in the transport sector, and the road network was a huge challenge to the rail networks because it has a number of advantages:

  • Spatial reach,
  • Flexibility of use,
  • A range of different vehicle types and costs,
  • Affordable vehicles,
  • An energy source that was readily available through the oil companies,
  • An ability to go door to door with the same vehicle, not possible with railways and, most importantly,
  • Personal freedom of choice.

And so, an aspiration to own a motor vehicle became a reality as people across the world recognised the benefits that the road industry and the car industry could bring.

So the car industry as we know it really developed in the United States, and at the same time, a completely new US-based transportation technology was developed. The ability to move relatively light but high value goods over large distances quickly created an underlying basis for the development of the air industry. The scale, carrying capacity and range of the aircraft developed hugely over the course of the Second World War.

Today, we are familiar with massive aircraft able to move many hundreds of people over thousands of kilometres at speeds of 1000 km/h. This incredible new transport technology further supported the pre-eminence of the US as a global leader in economic terms as well as military terms.

Another 20th century transforming technology developed in the US was nuclear energy as a power source both for electricity generation and to power new submarines for the US Navy. Widespread adoption in other countries has resulted in nuclear energy being 11% of the global electricity supply but with large variations from region to region.

In the EU, for example, some 30% of all electricity is generated from nuclear energy while in France, 80% of the supply of electricity is generated by nuclear energy. This late-20th century innovative energy source drives, and will continue to drive the growth and expansion of the global economy through the 21st century.

Chinese Empire

CLICK TO ENLARGE Figure 5: Silk Road Initiative

And finally, we turn to what may well be the 21st century empire, carrying on from the American 20th century and British 19th century industrial revolutions. China has very rapidly become a trade and economic empire, with a population massively greater than the US and hugely greater than Britain at 1.5 billion people.

China has limited military capacity, limited indigenous energy resources and limited indigenous mineral resources. However, China has identified the same factors that we have seen in the historic development of the great empires, with a huge investment in infrastructure and a clear focus on the purchasing of energy, mineral and transport resources worldwide.

If we look at what China has created in terms of transport infrastructure, it has built a motorway network at the end of 2016 of 130,000 kilometres compared to the US’ 77,000 kilometres. China has a railway network of 120,000 kilometres, half of the US’ railway network length. However, in high-speed rail (HSR), there are 60,000 kilometres of high-speed rail currently in China; two thirds of the total length of HSR in the world is in China with plans to add another 16,000 kilometres by 2025.

Another key form of transport examined with the Spanish and the British Empire is shipping. In 2017, some 67% of global container volume passes through Chinese owned or Chinese invested ports. On the air side, the 20th century US innovation, Daxing airport in Beijing will open in 2019 with 100 million passenger capacity, seven runways and the largest passenger terminal in the world. China is investing massively in transport and also is investing massively in energy sources.

Examination of Fig 5, mapping the Silk Road initiative, shows a graphic similar in scale to those of the Spanish, British and American empires. The reach can be seen to extend across central Asia and into Europe, across central and Southern Africa, down through South East Asia and into Indonesia with additional very significant influence in Australia.

These economic connections founded on transport infrastructure and energy as economic drivers are being developed on a scale and at a pace greater than anything envisioned by any empire to date.

Examination of Table 1, showing the number of companies by country in the Global Fortune 500, illustrates how rapidly China’s economy and companies are growing with a 119% increase in the number of companies in the Global 500 list over a seven-year period, compared with typical declines of c. 20% in most of the established large Western economies.

CLICK TO ENLARGE Table 1: Global Fortune 500 companies 2010-2016


CLICK TO ENLARGE Table 2: Top 32 companies 2017, Fortune Global 500

Table 2 shows the listing of the top 32 companies by revenue in 2017. Sixteen of the top 32 companies are either engaged primarily in energy or transport. Four others are technology based, and two others are telecoms focused.

Future developments

Energy, transport and technology are the dominating companies in the dominating economies in the world. We need to be so engaged in this energy/mobility space precisely because this is the area that has driven economic growth for at least the past 200 years, and shows no signs of stopping.

Very many of the concepts and technology that are discussed in the second part of this paper are at prototype or early-stage development. It is very unclear if some or any of these technologies will ultimately prevail, but ongoing, large-scale involvement is essential. Energy efficiency and new energy forms applied to transport and mobility will fuel economic growth over the next 50 years, and there will be winners and losers on local, regional and national scale.

China will invest $360 billion in renewable energy by the end of 2020. In the United States, clean energy industries are generating 2.5 million jobs, with one in 80 of all new jobs currently being created in the solar energy sector, a very recent newcomer to the energy market. There is major research under way in connected and autonomous vehicles (CV/AV), in central control of vehicle networks and use of big data to assist and improve.

AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, have identified a number of areas for immediate research that are key in mobilising and facilitating these new technologies in energy and transport. From an Institutional Policy viewpoint, work is underway exploring the business models to allow the deployment of infrastructure. Work in establishing new vehicle codes, implications for safety, harmonisation of rules and regulations at federal, state and local levels are essential.

Infrastructure design and implementation standards and guidelines must be modified and updated continuously to keep pace with the developments in technology. Roadway geometric design standards, dedicated lanes for CV/AV, asset management systems, vehicle guidance systems are all required to be updated.

Regulation and control of mixed traffic systems where vehicles operated by humans interact with CV/AV vehicles of different levels of complexity and capability across a range of vehicle-enabled sensors and central system monitoring will be a massive engineering and communications challenge.

Integration and impact of these new and modified transport systems, both public and private, will have a huge impact on how society functions in both urban and rural areas. This is particularly timely in 2017 in Ireland, with the imminent roll-out of the National Planning Framework aiming to lay out an integrated land-use approach to development of Ireland’s cities, towns and rural areas up to 2040.

The impact of new forms of transport, both public and private on mobility of socially underprivileged areas, on the elderly and disabled have enormous implications, potentially positive and negative, on how our society will function in the coming years.

In the final article in this two-part series, Dr Kieran Feighan outlines some amazing advances in transport technology relating to energy storage, alternative fuels, autonomous vehicles and road surfacing. Anne CarriganElecelectricity,energy,heritage,manufacturing,transport
Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan gave his presidential address in the organisation's headquarters in 22 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 on Thursday, 21 September. Here we provide a transcript of his speech. Read the second of this two-part series here. I will examine how harnessing energy to improve mobility...