In our recent video about gas vs. diesel, which you should definitely watch, we mentioned a man named Rudolf Diesel. Not only is there an entire fuel category named after him, but we said he was one of the fathers of the internal combustion engine.
And if we are honest, that is selling the story short.
That’s why we wanted to expand on that, and tell you all the intriguing story of one of the most brilliant minds of the late 19th century. Buckle up, and let’s go.
A Troubling Origin Story
Every superhero story needs an insane origin, and Rudolf does not disappoint. His story starts in Paris, France, 1858.
When he was born, he was actually given away to another family shortly after birth. We’ve heard of parents threatening to send their children to a farm to learn the value of hard work, but it’s a little ridiculous to do it at four days old.
A Rocky Start
The good news is that the Diesel family took him back in before his first birthday. The bad news is that it didn’t get better for him; his family was in constant financial ruin. Even as a young child, he had to help his father in the leather shop to keep the family fed.
Things started to smooth out as young Rudolf did well in school and business picked up. Unfortunately, the family was deported to England in 1870 due to a war between France and the Diesel home country of Germany.
Hoping to finally catch a break, Rudolf’s mother sent her brilliant son back to the Diesel hometown of Augsburg to live with his aunt and uncle.
That’s when the 12-year-old Rudolf learned German for the first time and was accepted into college.
Inspired by Technology
When he was 14, the future inventor had decided he only wanted one thing: to become an engineer. He graduated top of his class in 1873 and began to attend a new Industrial School of Augsburg just long enough to get a sweet scholarship.
His parents, like many of our parents, were concerned. They wrote him letters urging him to start working and quit putting off graduation, but Rudolf refused. He was truly a man way ahead of his time.
Instead, he headed off the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich, where he… Didn’t graduate. Instead, he got Typhoid and was held back a year due to being nearly dead.
Inventing a Name for Himself
Fortunately, Rudolf did not enter into the light and instead finally entered the workforce in 1879 by accepting a job as an engineer for a machine shop in Switzerland.
Then he graduated with honors. Then returned to Paris, got involved in designing refrigerators, then became the director of a plant after one year.
He married and moved back to Berlin while constantly improving the engineering world. He quickly became a lead researcher and board member for Linde’s research firm and quickly made a name for himself as a genius inventor.
Contributions to the Automobile World
So what, exactly, did he invent?
We don’t know the extent, actually. When he worked for the refrigeration firm, and later for Linde’s, anything he invented became the company’s property.
We do know he was working on greatly improving the steam engine. He was something of a genius when it came to the field of thermal dynamics, so a majority of his work concerned making existing engines more efficient.
He also did various work with experimental fuels, which is a fantastic foreshadowing for his biggest contribution. First, though, there were some explosions.
Rudolf Flirts with Death
Rudolf had his second brush with death while trying to build a steam engine that ran on ammonia. He was testing the strength of the cylinder heads and found out that they were not as strong as he anticipated.
The test engine exploded. He had to spend months in the hospital and never fully recovered.
That explosion may have pushed him towards finally pursuing the development of safer engines. Specifically, he switched gears from the external combustion steam engine and began work with internal combustion.
There is this model of efficiency called the Carnot Cycle. Very long story very short, the Carnot Cycle says that there is a hard limit to the efficiency of a thermal engine. That is to say; any combustion engine has a maximum amount of power that it can make.
In the late 1800s, though, most engines fell far short of that maximum. Rudolf thought that he could do much better, and in 1892, he filed for a world-changing patent and published a paper to go along with it. He called it the Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and The Combustion Engines Known Today. You can read it here if you like very dry documents.
The Rational Heat Engine
It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Inside the documents were the framework for a brand new kind of internal combustion engine, though. An engine that could run on peanut oil, coal dust, and processed vegetables.
An engine that would use high compression to ignite fuel and air at the perfect ratio and achieve an efficiency that was nearly triple the efficiency of the steam engine, which could lose 90% of its energy to heat instead of power.
The Motor 250/400
The year was 1897, and Diesel had just finished his successful test of the Motor 250/400. The numbers are the bore and stroke in millimeters, and they were actually really unreliable. One of the early test engines threw a rod, and others had constant injector issues due to the lack of available atomizing technology.
In fact, it was such a piece of garbage that a lot of investors walked out. At barely one year old, the Diesel engine was on its deathbed.
However, it did have a number of revolutionary ideas. First off, it was supercharged. People are going crazy for the supercharged Dodge Challengers nowadays, but Rudolf was riding that train more than 100 years ago.
It’s Not a Steam Engine!
That wasn’t enough, though, and Diesel’s dream was rapidly fading.
One of the biggest problems was people treated the 250/400 like a steam engine. For those that don’t know, it’s incredibly hard to overload a steam engine. The more torque you need from a steam piston, the more you get. Expanding water is very, very unforgiving as it turns out.
A diesel engine, especially the early ones, simply could not handle a high load. The 250/400, even with the supercharger, barely made 20 horsepower despite taking up half a room.
The Diesel Gets A Marketing Makeover
Fortunately, it got a marketing makeover. Instead of selling it as a steam engine replacement, they began touting its ultra-high efficiency and simplicity. It was an engine that anyone could have in their shop.
That new idea made the Diesel engine the hot topic of the early 1900s, and suddenly investors wanted a piece of it. Rudolf’s dream was realized, and the money started flowing in.
However, the trope of the tortured genius is older than time. By 1910, despite huge strides in development, Rudolf Diesel was haunted by the lack of perceived success and suffered a nervous breakdown.
A Mysterious End
In 1913, still suffering from depression, Rudolf walked aboard a ship bound for London. It was a mail steamer called the Dresden, and legend has it that Diesel was excited to meet with a new investor when he arrived.
When the steamer came into port, though, he was not aboard.
Items Floating In The Waves
Ten days later, a Dutch boat found a body floating in the sea. The body could not be identified, but the boat was able to fish a few items from the water including a knife, a wallet, and a pill case.
Rudolf’s son, Eugen, said that they were his father’s belongings.
Theories Run Wild
No one knows for sure what happened. When Rudolf climbed aboard the Dresden, he got dinner, scheduled a wake-up call, and laid out his clothing for the next day. There are two leading theories for what happened next.
The first theory is that he was murdered by the German government. The investor that he was excited to meet in London was none other than the British Royal Navy.
They thought they could use the Diesel Engine to power their ships, which would have been a serious technological edge going into the first world war. It is easy to understand why the German military wouldn’t want the Royal Navy to talk to Diesel.
The second theory is much more simple but much sadder. As we noted before, Diesel had a history of mental health issues. He may have simply taken the opportunity to quietly commit suicide while away from the public eye.
Adding to the mystery, his wife was left a huge bag of cash despite having very little money in their accounts. She claimed that Rudolf had left the bag of more than 120,000 dollars in today’s money for her to open while he was gone.
Regardless, though the man passed away, his legacy continues.
But The Legacy Continues
Today, you can’t go a day without relying on several diesel engines. Diesel engines power the ships that fuel trade between nations. They power the trains that transport goods between cities, and power the trucks that bring the goods to our doors. They power generators that keep us warm, move our military and are an integral part of farming.
So next time you drive to a gas station and see the diesel price, take a moment to remember that it’s just an alternative to petrol. It’s the way we honor one of the most important inventors of the 19th century.