Internal Fire

by C. Lyle Cummins, Jr.

Follow the history of the internal-combustion engine from as far back as the 1600s to sideshows such as the use of gunpowder as a motive force to its ca. 1900—and still absurdly inefficient—iteration.

You could think of the title both in the literal sense of “internal combustion” but also figuratively as the “spark” in the minds of the numerous inventors and builders and engineers who move/d mankind forward.

It‘s always a pleasure to read a book by someone who is eminently qualified to write it. That is certainly the case with Lyle Cummins (son of Cummins Engine founder, Clessie—largest builder of medium and large diesel engines in the world). Family and professional background thus make him uniquely qualified to write a book on the historic development of internal combustion engines. A particular line of inquiry he pursues is that engines cannot be meaningfully examined without also looking at the fuels specific to them.

The depth of knowledge in this book is uncommon, even for engineers. But it is not a dry engineering book about how one solves problems. It is about the people who brought power to mankind . . . who collectively affected more people and made more world history than any general, dictator, king, or president ever did.

Internal Fire (now in its 3rd edition) has enough technical detail to enable one to tell what each of the many inventors actually contributed through history. It starts with the earliest engine types—internal and external combustion like the Newcomen engine and gunpowder-driven machines. It ends with speculation as to what the rest of the 21th century will bring. The content in between will surprise you, I promise!

Not only is Internal Fire extremely well researched, documented, and indexed, it is uncommon in that it breaks the rules regarding our urgency to forget and bury our engineering history and the people who made it.

Cummins has used a difficult but bountiful resource for much of the work—patents. Since engine development is largely through invention‚ there is much patent information from which to extract crucial pieces of industrial history. Not an easy task, however. In this work the author’s determined research shows through, often illustrating specific and critical patent claim language that literally affected the destiny of the world to come. Most researchers would not be able to justify that kind of depth.

If you are not interested in engines and their incredibly difficult development, you may not be able to stay with it. This reviewer did find himself trying to extract just a little bit more detail about engine features than could be gained from the 129 drawings provided.

If you do get into this book, you will definitely learn a whole lot—almost no matter what your background—and develop a new appreciation of the mechanical power that surrounds us.

Note the clever name of the imprint under which Cummins publishes: Carnot Press. Nicholas Léonard Sadi Carnot (1796–1832) was the French military engineer often called “the father of thermodynamics” who gave the first sound theoretical description of a heat engine, now known as the Carnot Cycle.


Copyright 2012, Bill Kennedy (

Internal Fire
by C. Lyle Cummins, Jr.
Carnot Press, 2002 (3rd revised edition)
356 pages, ca. 230 b&w illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $39
ISBN-13: 978-0917308055

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