Rudolf Diesel was vain, oversensitive, and paranoid. His stubborn and persistent disposition clouded his ability to make friends, while his sanctimonious bluster alienated those even in his own field. He was revolutionary, a Renaissance man in a Victorian era, a mechanical Michelangelo, painting with grease and gears, pressure and heat. He enjoyed opera, played classical piano, spoke three languages fluently, only wore tailored suits, and took long walks daily. Diesel was as comfortable discussing poetry, language, and art as he was the properties of thermodynamics, the efficiency of steam, and—most importantly—engines. By 1913, thousands of engines bearing his name were puffing away noisily in factories around the world, but all was not well. On September 29, 1913, during a particularly cold crossing from Antwerp to England, Diesel stepped over the stern railing of the steamship Dresden—and jumped.

Diesel’s body was found floating near Norway 10 days later. Conspiracy theories flourished.

Diesel’s early life was hallmarked by success in school and the bourgeoning engineering field at the midst of the industrial revolution.

Diesel’s Early Life

Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel was the second of three children, born on March 18, 1858, to Elise and Theodor Diesel, Bavarian transplants living in Paris. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, Diesel’s family was forced to leave France. They settled in London, but Diesel was sent to his father’s hometown of Augsburg (about 40 miles northwest of Munich) to live with his aunt and uncle and learn their native tongue.

Diesel found school easy and had decided early on that he wanted to be an engineer, probably with the encouragement of his uncle, who taught mathematics at the Royal County Trade School. Diesel accepted a scholarship to attend the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich against his parents’ wishes; they wanted him to return to London to start working, but Diesel insisted on completing his education.

“Diesel patented a design for his engine on February 28, 1892.”

While at the university, he studied under Carl von Linde, inventor of the reliable refrigeration unit (Linde AG is the leading manufacturer of refrigerators in Europe). Von Linde’s lectures influenced Diesel, sparking his interests in engines, as did the 1824 publication of Nicholas Carnot, Reflections of the Motive Power of Fire.  Carnot’s theories about the efficiency of engines laid the groundwork for the future study of thermodynamics.

Early Career and Family

After a bout of typhoid fever put him in the hospital just before his final university exams, he had to graduate six months later than the rest of his class, in January 1880. He returned to Paris and became the director of von Linde’s refrigeration plant. The numerous patents he filed on behalf of the Linde Company showed his acumen for engineering, but his heart and mind were into engines, as he was formulating a plan to create an engine more efficient than steam. His first engine nearly killed him as he again spent many months in the hospital and suffered eyesight problems for the rest of his life.

In 1883, Diesel was married to Martha Flasche with which he had sons Rudolf Jr. and Eugen, and a daughter Heddy. In that same year, Diesel published a book titled Theory and a Rational Thermal Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and the Combustion Engines Known Today. It described engines that relied on a high air temperature caused by extreme compression of the fuel to ignite it, which eliminated the spark plug.

In 1885, Diesel set up shop in Paris to begin development of his compression ignition engine. The process would last 13 years.

Diesel’s 1897 engine: a four-stroke compression engine capable of 25 hp.
Diesel’s patent for his “oil engine,” granted on February 28, 1893. He wouldn’t have a working prototype for another year.

Diesel patented a design for his engine on February 28, 1892; the following year, he explained his design in a paper called “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Contemporary Combustion Engine.” He called his invention a “compression ignition engine” that could burn any fuel: It ignited by introducing fuel into a cylinder full of air that had been compressed to an extremely high pressure and was, therefore, extremely hot.

The first tractor to be powered by a diesel engine was the Benz-Sending tractor in Europe, but the first tractor in America powered by diesel was a McCormick-Deering TD-40 in 1933, which was the tracked version of this WD-40, offered the following year.

Such an engine would be unprecedentedly efficient, Diesel argued: In contrast to the other steam engines of the era, which wasted more than 90 percent of their fuel energy, Diesel calculated that his could be as much as 75-percent efficient.

The Cummins “Diesel Special” race car was driven at both Daytona and the Indianapolis 500 in 1931 and returned to Indianapolis in 1934 (shown).

Diesel’s Engine

In the 1890s, he received a number of patents for his invention of an efficient, slow burning, compression ignition, an internal combustion engine. The first functional engine prototype (150mm bore and a 400mm stroke, producing 25 hp) was built at Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg AG (MAN) plant in July 1893 and started on August 10, 1893. While the first engine test wasn’t as successful as Diesel had hoped, a series of improvements and subsequent tests led to a successful test on February 17, 1897, when Diesel demonstrated that his engine had an efficiency of 26.2 percent, a significant achievement given that the steam engines of the times only had efficiencies of around 10 percent.

The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine in the Mercedes-Benz 260D produced approximately 45 hp.

In addition to MAN, Sulzer Brothers of Switzerland took an early interest in Diesel’s work, buying certain rights to Diesel’s invention in 1893. The first Sulzer-built diesel engine was started in June 1898.

The fuels used for powering the engine can either be bio-derived or petroleum based. But what first served as its fuel was peanut oil. Diesel was sure that his engine “can be fed with vegetables oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it.” It is this reason why his engine was originally known as the “oil engine.”

The fact that it does not require complex spark ignition systems is what really sets the diesel engine apart from spark-ignition engines and makes it more efficient. According to Diesel, “It is the diesel’s higher compression ratio that leads to its greater fuel efficiency. Because the air is compressed, the combustion temperature is higher, and the gases will expand more after combustion, applying more pressure to the piston and crankshaft.”

On March 12, 1924, the first commercial truck powered by a diesel engine, built by Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg AG (MAN), was driven on an experimental trip of around 90 miles. The 40-hp engine made the trip in under six hours.

Development of the Diesel

He had worked from 1893 to 1897 at the Augsburg Machine-Works developing a working engine, and during that time, in his view, he was still inventing the engine. Engineers outside the process saw all that as development, the difficult trial-and-error-work that any inventor needs to go through to take a good idea and turn it into a marketable product. After 1897, however, Diesel supposed he was finished. From then, he turned all his efforts into promoting the engine. But it was still distressingly not ready for consumer application. Many engineers and developers joined in the work to improve the market viability of the diesel engine. Diesel, as a result, became threatened by this development process and was not always able to come to terms with the other engine designers working on his invention.

Diesel’s early attempts of market promotion of the not-yet-ready engine eventually led into a nervous breakdown. He saw the involvement of other engineers—lesser minds in his opinion—tinkering with his invention as a threat to his control over the project. He failed to see that what made his engine viable in the marketplace and what would be a very successful engine for the foreseeable future, was a lot of truly inventive thinking by some very good engineers. In addition, he was badly troubled by criticisms of his role in creating the engine. In 1913, four books were written about the diesel engine; one by Diesel and three others denouncing Diesel’s involvement with the engine’s success after 1897.

The End

By 1913, some 16 years after the birth of his invention, he saw it as a complete work, while others still viewed it as a raw work in progress. He again turned to promoting the engine instead of working on it, then eventually worked himself into yet another nervous breakdown by refusing innovation and the help of other engineers around him. That same year Diesel wrote that few factories were good enough to build his engines, and he eventually irritated other engineers and continued to seclude himself from the commercial world.

Adding to his heartache, after Diesel’s patents started to expire in 1912, a number of other companies took his invention and developed it further. The more the engine was developed, the farther it seemed to drift from his original idea. Diesel couldn’t enjoy his achievement any more. A not-yet-ready engine, bad investments and frequent headaches made him nervous and depressed.

He boarded the ship HMS Dresden in Antwerp, Belgium, headed for London where he had a meeting with Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing company. On September 29, he ate dinner and instructed the porter to wake him up at 6:15 the next morning.

When the Dresden arrived in Harwick, England, Diesel’s cabin was empty, his nightshirt was laying on his unslept-in bed and his watch was resting on the nightstand. On a small desk, Diesel’s diary lay open to September 29, where Diesel had drawn a small cross. Later, his hat was found placed atop his neatly folded coat at the base of the railing at the stern of the ship.

“He called his invention a ‘compression ignition engine’ that could burn any fuel.”

After his death, Diesel’s engine was greatly developed and was made to be usable for marine engines, automobiles, electric power generators, factories, trains, oil drilling equipment, and mining machines. It was used to power submarines during World War I after undergoing improvements introduced primarily by German engineer Karl Bosch. Design contributions from British engineers Cedric Dicksee and Harry Ricardo allowed diesel engines to power trucks, buses, and tractors.

Today, one out of every two cars in Europe is a diesel and the percentage of diesels used in ocean-going ships and long-haul trucks is nearly 100 percent. DW


Diesel Firsts

At the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, Rudolf Diesel was given the Grand Prix award for excellence for his diesel engine display. But, the first diesel engines did not go into cars, trucks or even locomotives.

The first diesel engines were used in the shipping industry. In 1898, Diesel licensed his new engine to the Branobel Russian oil company for use as an engine in a ship. In 1903, the first cargo ship propelled by a diesel engine was launched (a canal barge named “Petit Pierre”), and in 1904, the French built the first diesel-powered submarine, called “Z.”

It wasn’t until 1912 that the first locomotive with a diesel engine was introduced by the Danish. In 1922, the Benz-Sending tractor by Mercedes-Benz was built with a diesel engine. Finally, in 1923, the first truck with a diesel engine was introduced through a joint venture between Daimler, Benz and MAN.

The Cummins “Diesel Special” race car was driven at both Daytona and the Indianapolis 500 in 1931 (and subsequent years) and did not need a single pit stop. In 1933, an older Bentley fitted with a diesel engine was the first of its kind to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally.

The Mercedes-Benz 260D was the first successful production car to employ a diesel engine. Nearly 2,000 were produced until 1940 when Mercedes-Benz devoted its factories entirely to the manufacture of military equipment.

In 1933, the Citroën Rosalie was introduced as the first production passenger car to be powered by a diesel engine, but the car did not go into production until 1935. Shortly afterward, in 1936, the Mercedes-Benz 260D and the Hanomag Rekord diesel cars were introduced.

Starting in the 1950s, European marques such as Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Austin, Fiat, and several Asian brands began introducing diesel-powered taxis, ambulances, station wagons, and a other vehicles better suited to civic employment rather than personal use.

In 1967, the Peugeot 204BD was introduced as the first high-speed diesel car. In 1976, the Volkswagen Golf diesel was marketed to the public, becoming the first diesel car to enjoy popularity.

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