By Peter Vella 

The year is 2039. A twelve year old boy is sitting down with his grandfather to work on an essay that the boy is preparing for his grade six history module.

“So Grandpa Liam, I need you to help me. I think you were alive when the thing I have to write about was around.”

No problem Trinvaar. Is it dinosaurs?

“No, it’s the Internal Compulsion Engine”

“Internal Compulsion is what causes you to fall in love or go to the bathroom. I think you mean the internal combustion engine.”

“That’s it. Actually I researched it a bit, but I just got more confused the more I read. Can you give me the basic idea to start with?”

“Okay so you take a highly flammable liquid and you get it to explode in small circular chambers right in front or behind you in the car”.

“Grandpa Liam, stop goofing around. I need this done by Monday”.

“No, I promise I am serious, A lot of little explosions would eventually move the car”’


“It sounds dangerous. Could you get this flammable liquid in your backyard like we get energy from our solar panels?”

“No, no. The flammable liquid came from different locations around the world. These places could be politically unstable, socially polarized and in some cases outright aggressive towards their customers; places like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Alberta. The liquid was sucked out of the ground in its crude form and then sent all over the world in really big ships (that sometimes leaked) to be ‘ refined’. If everything went well, the liquid ended up at your local gas station”.

“So all the gas station sold was the flammable liquid?”

“It also sold naughty magazines, cigarettes, and pepperoni sticks. None of those exist anymore.”

“How many circular chambers did the engine need?”

“Good question. Well there were cars with as little as two chambers or as many as sixteen, but four to eight chambers were the norm.”

“Why more or less?”

More is better. It’s like more capacity in your phone. Did you ever hear the phrase there’s no replacement for displacement?”


I didn’t think so. Then the turbocharger came along. It was a pretty smart concept. It used the energy of the exiting exhaust gases from all those explosions to turn a turbine that created a forced induction mechanism (like the draft for the Viet Nam War) to ram air into the engine. You got more bang from a smaller engine with less circular chambers.”

“Free power; like regenerative braking?”

 “Not quite. The turbo cost you money to buy and often times you had to feed it more expensive flammable liquid. It also needed a separate cooling and lubrication system; both of which needed servicing. Also if you actually put your foot down and used the turbo to get more oomph out of your engine you burned up more flammable liquid anyway. Still you have to admit, the word “turbocharger” has a nice ring to it. Also Trinvaar, internal combustion powered cars did not have regenerative braking”

“What are you saying? So all the brakes did was stop the car?”

“And make a real lot of heat and some nasty dust.”

“Let’s get back to the engine. So possibly seven explosions happened and that turned the car’s wheels.”

“No no. First of all, I never heard of a V7 engine, but even if it existed, the explosions moved these cylinder sleeves called pistons up and down inside the chambers. That linear motion had to be turned into a rotary type motion. You know, going around in a circle like the wheels do. That was the job of the crankshaft.”

“So the spinning crankshaft put the engine’s power into the wheels?”

“Not yet Trinvaar. The power band of these engines was pretty narrow. They needed a series of gears to pass the power band off to its next happy place.”

“Even if you had fifteen cylinders?”

“Phew, Yes.”

“How many gears were needed?”

“Chevrolet made a van with two gears and Ford made a truck with ten. Then there were Constant Velocity Transmissions which had like a million gears.”

“More is better.”

“That’s my grandson. You are a fast learner.”

“How did you know which gear to use?”

“Another good question. You listened to the revolutions of the crankshaft and when it sounded like a two year old that had eaten too much chocolate you depressed a pedal on the floor with your foot. This activated the clutch which allowed a smooth transition from one gear to the next. The actual gear change took place when you moved this metal stick that stuck up out of your floor (or hung off the side of your steering column) to another position. Or, you got an automatic transmission which freed up a hand to eat pepperoni sticks or text the wife.”

“What does text mean?”

“It has nothing to do with internal combustion; next question”.

“Have we missed anything?”

 “Hell yea. There was a flywheel to make the engine perform smoothly. Explosions make a racket so there needed to be devices to muffle that sound. There was a radiator to cool the whole thing. There were spark plugs to set off those explosions. There was a system to mix the flammable liquid with air to make it even more flammable. This involved lots of valves and electronic injectors. There was an oil pan to hold lubricant that needed changing. There were belts and hoses all over the place, There was a generator and an alternator to create and tame electricity from the engine’s motion to heat the car, cool the car and charge your phone. That energy was stored in a battery”.

“Stop right there!  Battery; I know that word. Was it a smart battery like I have in my phone?”

“No it was a stupid battery. It was made of lead and water and was very heavy. If you left your lights on for a long time your stupid battery needed to meet up with another stupid battery to get going again.”

“There’s lots more Grandpa isn’t there?”

“You bet. We could talk about antifreeze, or block heaters, or overhead cams. We could talk about hood scoops, or drive shafts, or how twice as many exhaust pipes seemed like “more is better”.  We could talk about the rotary engine with its power already going around in a circle, but the whole idea was so far ahead of its time that it never caught up. Or we could talk about the diesel engine that didn’t need spark plugs, but was just one of those things we all got wrong, like thalidomide, or Milli Vanilli. But honestly Trinvaad, this stuff is getting me down. Let’s go to the Dairy Queen; my treat.”

“It’s Trinvaar and I know you Grandpa Liam. You take me to Dairy Queen when you don’t want to talk about a certain topic.  Like a topic you think I am not old enough to understand. You are holding out on me concerning an important part of the internal combustion engine, aren’t you? You have to tell me, even if it’s awful. You have to tell me!”

“Alright then, but don’t tell your mother I told you this. Trinvaar, every internal combustion engine (which numbered in the billions) produced poisonous emissions while taking us to the woods for a hike or to see our grandparents that had asthma. Our need for mobility was ruining all the places we wanted to go to, and all the people we wanted to see. Internal combustion engines had no system to deal with these poisonous gases for the first eighty years of their existence. Then some brilliant folks figured out if you ran hot exhaust gases over paper thin slices of precious metals it could actually change the foul gases’ chemical makeup. But it all  had to be really hot to work, which means when a car first started up or sat in the drive through line for a chili dog and a macchiato it was still making some old school pollution. Do your math and multiply that by a billion or two. And they didn’t even put those devices on lawn mowers, or generators, or weed whackers. That is why in grade seven I will be helping you with a history essay on polar bears and also why the Winter Olympics are held indoors now. The internal combustion engine was a bad concept that we banged our heads against the wall to perfect or at least rationalize. I am truly sorry for my part in all that Trinvaar”.

“I think I’ll have a Blizzard. How about you?”

“Maybe a banana split.”