Turbochargers are fairly ubiquitous pieces of technology in today's automotive world. With the increased focus on fuel efficiency, more and more manufacturers are putting turbochargers in their vehicles with the goal of producing more power from smaller, more efficient engines.
However, while it's only been within the past 40 years or so that turbos have really started to catch on in the automobile industry, turbochargers in general have been around way before this point. In fact, as of 2022, turbochargers have existed for 118 years.
Today, we'll be talking all about turbochargers. We'll be going over who invented them, when they were first used, and how it came to be that turbochargers became such an integral part of today's cars.
The Creation of the Turbocharger
As you might know, turbocharging is an example of forced induction. If you're not familiar with the term, forced induction refers to delivering high-pressure air to an internal combustion engine. Providing the engine with more air than it would normally get enables it to burn more fuel at a time and make more power.
The idea of forced induction at the very least has existed since before the first cars hit the roads. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler patented a design for a gear-driven pump that could be used to send extra air into an engine. However, in concept, this is really more similar to a supercharger rather than a turbocharger.
The first design for an actual turbocharger was patented 20 years later in 1905 by Alfred Büchi, a Swiss engineer. His design featured an exhaust-driven turbine and a compressor mounted on a connected shaft, which is essentially all that a turbocharger is.
Büchi built a prototype of his turbocharger in 1915 for demonstration purposes, but it was unreliable and didn't end up being made. However, by this time, Büchi wasn't the only person attempting to develop a turbocharger; in 1916, a French inventor named Auguste Rateau applied for a patent for his own turbocharger.
Fun fact: all forced induction devices are technically considered to be superchargers, which means that turbochargers are actually a kind of supercharger. These days, however, the term "supercharger" refers solely to mechanically-driven superchargers, as opposed to turbochargers which are driven by exhaust gas.
In the early days, to differentiate between turbochargers and other superchargers, turbos were called "turbosuperchargers", but this term is no longer used. Another obscure term you might hear is "twincharging", which refers to an engine that uses both a turbocharger and a supercharger.
What Was the First Vehicle to Use a Turbocharger?
We mainly think of turbochargers as being associated with cars, but in fact, the first use of a turbocharger in a moving vehicle was in an airplane. In those days, turbochargers were a lot bulkier than they often are now, which made them a bit less practical for use in smaller vehicles like commuter cars.
The burgeoning aerospace industry was reaching greater heights, figuratively and literally. With the outbreak of World War I, many of the world's nations had developed their own air forces, and were spending more time than ever researching how to help planes maintain their engine performance at higher altitudes.
In 1917, an American engineer named Sanford Moss was contacted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), who requested his help developing a turbocharger for airplane engines. At the time, Moss was working with General Electric developing gas turbines, so the NACA considered him one of the best men for the job.
That same year, Moss tested his turbocharger near the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado, and found that the engine fitted with his turbocharger performed the same at 14,000 feet above sea level as it did when it was right at sea level.
After finding their way into airplane engines, the next big application for turbochargers was with marine diesel engines. In 1925, the aforementioned Alfred Büchi developed a turbocharger for a 10-cylinder diesel engine. Two of these engines made their way into two different passenger ships, the Preussen and the Hansestadt Danzig.
The addition of turbochargers to these engines increased horsepower considerably; the naturally-aspirated versions of the engines made only 1,750 horsepower, while the turbocharged version produced around 2,500 horsepower.
The performance benefits of turbocharging were obvious at this point; all that remained was for the technology to make its way into regular, everyday vehicles.
When Did Cars Start Using Turbochargers?
As it turned out, it took a lot longer for turbochargers to catch on with cars than it did for them to catch on with basically every other vehicle. Even transport trucks got turbochargers before passenger cars did; starting in 1931, Swiss truck manufacturer Adolph Saurer AG offered turbocharged engines as options for some of their vehicles.
The first turbocharged commuter cars didn't appear until the 1960s. Two cars hold the claim to being the first turbocharged car, as they both came out the same year in 1962; the Oldsmobile Cutlass Jetfire, and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder.
Unfortunately, these early turbocharged engines suffered from quite a few problems. For one, they were overly complicated; the engine in the Jetfire, for example, had a second tank that owners needed to fill up with a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water.
To avoid engine knock, this solution needed to be sprayed into the intake air stream. As you can probably imagine, however, many people would forget that this tank existed and needed to be refilled, When the fluid in the tank ran out, the car would switch itself into a low-power mode to prevent the engine from getting damaged.
Early turbocharged engines also suffered heavily from turbo lag. If you're not familiar with how this works, basically what you need to know is that a turbo can't generate extra power until the exhaust gasses spin the turbine fast enough. When you're low in the rev range, there isn't enough exhaust gas flowing through the turbine, and so the turbo spins relatively slowly.
For these reasons, turbocharging didn't really become very common in cars until the late 70s and early 80s, when the oil crisis forced American car manufacturers to try something other than sticking the biggest possible engine in a car for the most performance.