Rudolf Diesel: The Founding Father of the Diesel Engine

Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the light of the Volkswagen-sourced Dieselgate scandal of this past year, it seems only fair to discuss the origin of the technology behind it: the diesel engine. The technology was developed by a German engineer, Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel. He was born in 1858 in Paris, and in 1870, Germans were required to leave France due to the Franco-Prussian War. Diesel and his family were sent to London and forced to scrape together whatever living they could as refugees. Rudolf was able to return to Germany shortly thereafter, and he stayed with his uncle in Augsburg.

Luckily for Rudolf (and the automotive world), he was trained as a mechanical engineer at the Munich Polytechnickum. He graduated with highest honors and studied thermodynamics under Carl von Linde. His work with thermodynamics inspired him to attempt to achieve the holy grail of engine design, an engine that matched the efficiency of the Carnot cycle.

Following graduation in 1880, he moved to Paris to work as a refrigeration engineer for Linde. During the following decade, Diesel continued to study efficient engine design, working with ammonia as the fluid rather than air (the refrigeration units that he was helping to produce used ammonia so it was well-known to him.) He abandoned this practice after one of the ammonia-engines exploded during testing, seriously injuring Diesel.

Like many of the designers from that period, Diesel was primarily motivated by passion rather than greed. In fact, it was quite the opposite with him: He hoped to develop an engine that would provide power to small businesses, which would offset some of the advantages of the established industrial powers. The engine technology that he hoped would accomplish all of this was first tested in August 1893. A single-cylinder with a stroke of nearly 16 inches proved that the technology was viable.

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The first diesel motor built by Krupp Industries. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Undeterred, he continued to refine his design, eventually filing for and receiving a patent for an “internal combustion engine” in the 1892. He summarized his work in his paper, “Theorie und Konstruktion eines rationellen Wäremotors (“Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Motor”). While Diesel’s intention had been to provide power to small businesses, large businesses couldn’t help but recognize the potential of the technology. With his test engines, he was able to prove significantly higher theoretical efficiencies than had previously been observed with steam engines.

His opus was a 25 horsepower, four-stroke, single cylinder engine that he produced in 1897. This engine was able to demonstrate an efficiency of 26.2% under load during its testing. That might not seem like much, but it was a quantum leap forward compared to the roughly 10% that was being achieved by steam engines from the same period. The success of the engine generated so much interest that that same year Adolphus Busch (co-founder of Anheuser-Busch) paid $1 million for the license to bring the engine technology to the United States. This, combined with the profits from the sale of Diesel engines to businesses large and small, made Rudolf a multi-millionaire.

It is at this point that the story starts to get a little bit strange. A company was established in Augsburg to produce Diesel engines, but it appears that Diesel struggled with its success. A number of engineers and technicians were brought in to help develop the technology and to refine production. Diesel struggled to communicate with them effectively and appears to have suffered from a bit of a breakdown, likely due to a feeling of losing control of the development of a technology on which he had spent more than half of his life. The company was never a commercial success and Diesel appears to have been forever changed.

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Rudolf Diesel (center, wearing light hat) with his workers at an engineering exhibition in Munich. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the first decade of the 20th century, Diesel continued to lecture despite his illness and stress. His involvement in the development of the engine declined and he suffered harsh criticism for his part in the failed development and marketing of the Diesel engine in Augsburg. This criticism appeared to be force Diesel to make a decision: While traveling on the Antwerp-Harwich steamship Dresden in September 1913, Diesel fell from the deck. According to an article in the London times, a Dutch ship found a body shortly after, and it was identified as Diesel’s by personal effects. Many speculate that he committed suicide, but the cause for the fall is technically unknown.

The patent that Diesel was awarded in 1892 lasted for 20 years, which meant that designers were able to continue developing Diesel engine technology shortly before his disappearance. This style of engine developed alongside the gasoline-powered engines in the 20th century and has been an important part of the automotive landscape to this day. I believe that “Dieselgate” is capitalized in an effort to make it a proper noun, but perhaps we can think of it in a more positive sense, which is paying homage to the Diesel name that helped to bring the engine technology to life. While the current batch of Diesel engines might be facing some challenges, there is no doubt that Diesels have helped to power and shape our world.

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