When you hear the name Rudolf Diesel it’s easy to guess where he fits into history. His creations completely changed life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, most people know him by the invention that carries his name. In creating the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel gave the world a powerful, efficient piece of equipment. Although science and industry are currently testing electric engines and ones that run off new fuels such as LNG, Diesel’s engine remains unrivaled today.
Rudolf Diesel Was a Natural at Engineering
Born in 1858 to German parents living in France, Rudolf Diesel was drawn to engineering early on. It was an interest that was fed by frequent trips to Paris’s Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. When Diesel was just 12, his family moved to London, forced out of Paris by the Franco-Prussian war. Rudolf, however, went to Augsburg to go to school.
When he was 17, Diesel’s skill in engineering paid off. It earned him a scholarship to study thermodynamics at the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich. It was there that Rudolf met and studied under Professor Karl von Linde. The two men struck up a friendship, and Diesel eventually went to work for Linde. Rudolf Diesel graduated with honors in 1880, though he was a year behind his class due to having come down with typhoid. Diesel made good use of the year before graduation, though. He spent it getting hands-on engineering experience at a Swiss machine works.
After graduation, Professor Linde invited Rudolf to help him design and build an ice and cooling plant. Diesel then took on the job of plant director when it opened a year later. In 1890, he moved to Linde’s Berlin office to head up research and development. While employed at Karl Linde’s company, Rudolf created and patented many inventions. Because he developed most of them as an ice plant employee, though, he could not personally benefit from them.
That was no problem for Rudolf Diesel. He turned his attention to engine design. Diesel had become interested in thermal and fuel efficiency and wanted to create a steam engine powered by ammonia vapor. Unfortunately, it blew up during testing. Having barely escaped death, his focus turned to Nicholas Carnot’s theory of the thermodynamic cycle. Rudolf saw that steam engines of the time wasted nearly 90 percent of their energy. He felt that using the Carnot cycle would help create a far more efficient engine.
The Incomparable Diesel Engine
The new research direction didn’t take Rudolf directly to the diesel engine, though it came quickly enough. First, applying the Carnot cycle led to a patent for an engine that ran off powdered coal. It was a cheap fuel at the time and a logical choice for powering an engine.
Then, Rudolf Diesel began working on what he called a new rational heat engine. Within a year he obtained a patent for the Working Method and Design for Combustion Engines. He started testing and tweaking a prototype, including trying mineral oil and heavy petroleum. By 1897, Diesel had an engine with an efficiency of over 26 percent. He’d created a world’s first: a 4-stroke 1-cylinder compression engine with 25 horsepower. In a diesel engine, the highly compressed air creates a higher combustion temperature. The resulting gas expansion puts increased pressure on the piston and crankshaft, making it more fuel-efficient.
Notably, Adolphus Busch, the brewer, had the first commercial diesel engine built. It worked so well, he ended up buying the manufacturing and sales licenses for the U.S. and Canada.
A Mysterious End
In September of 1913, Rudolf Diesel vanished from a ship during a business trip to London. Ten days later, the crew of a different ship fished a badly decayed body from the North Sea. They took personal items from the corpse’s pockets before returning it to the water. Among the items were an I.D. card and pill and eyeglass cases. A family member later identified them as belonging to Diesel. Suicide and foul play were both suspected, but to this day the death remains a mystery.
Still, Rudolf Diesel’s mysterious demise takes a back seat to his top invention. It has been modified over the years, but remains essentially the same basic design. You’ll find it in many machines such as generators, trains, mining and oil drilling equipment, and, of course, heavy-duty trucks. People have tried, but no one has yet come up with anything to match the power or efficiency of the diesel engine.