The history of transportation is filled with interesting characters and storylines, but perhaps none more influential than German mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel, whose contributions to the advancement of automobile technology make his name well-recognized.
Even if you don’t realize it, you probably see homage paid to his name every time you stop by a gas station, but what is the real-life story behind this titan of the transportation industry?
Rudolf Diesel is the inventor of the compression-ignition internal combustion engine, which replaced the steam piston engine and became invaluable to the automotive industry as a fuel-efficient way to convert heat to mechanical energy.
The toils of an inventor often go unnoticed, and Rudolf Diesel had to overcome many obstacles before achieving his claim to fame. The rest of this article will shine a light on a brilliant inventor, the genius that brought the transportation industry to new heights.
Early Life of Rudolf Diesel
Born in 1858 in Paris, France, Rudolf Diesel was the second of three children of Elise and Theodor Diesel, who were Bavarian-born immigrants to France.
Shortly after his birth, likely for financial reasons, Rudolf was sent off to the eastern suburbs of Paris, where he spent the first nine months of his life with a Vincennes farmer family.
At an early age after being returned to his parents, Diesel was put to work in his father’s leather shop business delivering goods to customers, but at school, he began to take an interest in society and technology.
When the Franco-Prussian War between the second French empire and the Northern German Confederation broke out, his family relocated to London.
Diesel, however, was sent back to live with his aunt and uncle before the war’s end. His uncle sparked Diesel’s interest in mathematics, and only 14,
Diesel was a budding engineer and would graduate basic education with high accolades just a year later.
The Spark of Inspiration
Diesel continued to excel in his academic pursuits and gained additional engineering knowledge at a Swiss manufacturing and engineering firm called Sulzer Brothers Machine Works.
After graduating in 1880, he went home to Paris, where he would aid former professor Carl von Linde with several modern refrigeration inventions and go on to claim several patents of his own.
In 1883, he married Martha Flasche, and the two would complete their move to Berlin in 1890.
Unable to continue in the field of refrigeration, Diesel turned his attention to steam-powered engines, although his ammonia vapor powered steam engine almost proved fatal when it exploded during testing.
Diesel was undeterred. Inspired by physicist Sadi Carnot, he was convinced that he could push the theoretical limits of thermal energy to match the Carnot cycle, and in 1893, he wrote an essay outlining the concept and development.
With a few corrections, Diesel envisioned a masterpiece― the most fuel-efficient engine every created, far surpassing the steam engine that would lose up to 90% of the energy it created.
In 1897, after years of theorizing and experimenting, the first successful diesel engine, dubbed the Motor 250/400, proved its merit by performing under a series of tests.
Diesel underwent massive criticism for his 1893 treatise, and many claimed that his engine was a sham. But the Bavarian inventor proved his merit by inventing something that any car enthusiast today would recognize instantly.
The best part? The Motor 250/400 was run on peanut oil. And they thought he was nuts.
The Significance of the Diesel Engine
The sheer magnitude of improvement that the diesel engine offered compared to the steam engine cannot be overstated. Powered by mechanical compression, a diesel engine ignites the fuel via extreme heat in the compression chamber.
Due to its high expansion ratio and lean burn, the diesel engine has high thermal efficiency. After 1910, people would start to see its merit in submarines and ships.
Later, they would see use in larger vehicles like buses and trucks, as well as locomotives, agricultural machines, and electricity plants.
Just as Diesel improved on the work of his predecessors, his contemporaries went on to improve his design and turn it into the powerful engine we know today.
A Mysterious Death at Sea
The circumstances surrounding Rudolf Diesel’s death are mysterious. Diesel boarded the SS Dresden to travel to London for a meeting. After retiring to his cabin with instructions to be awoken early the next morning, Diesel was never seen alive again.
His body was discovered by a Dutch crew ten days later, and his son Eugene confirmed that the items recovered from the body did in fact belong to his father.
Some are quick to assess Diesel’s disappearance from his cabin as suicide, but as conspiracy would have it, there seems to be more to the story.
Following his disappearance, his wife discovered a bag left with instructions not to be opened until the following week. In it, she found a sizable lump sum of money.
The theory goes that Diesel was murdered for his refusal to grant the German army exclusive access to his engine. The voyage, as coincidence would have it, was to meet with officials from the British Royal Navy to arrange the use of the diesel engine in British submarines.
Rudolf Diesel was no stranger to hard work, and his prowess and dedication to the field of mechanical engineering led him to become one of the most influential figures in the history of modern transportation.
Diesel saw a lot of criticism for his ideas, as seems to be the case for most great inventors, but his perseverance and commitment to his work led him to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame following his invention.
A hard childhood and rigorous studies gave him a strong work ethic and an unbreakable will, and the best part is that he wanted to showcase his work for the benefit of all.
For that, car enthusiasts and engineering students worldwide will continue to recognize Rudolf Diesel as a significant figure in the history of transportation.