Rudolf Diesel Invents Diesel Engine

By Jonathan Spira on 23 November 2009
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Rudolf Diesel

Rudolf Diesel

Without Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), this publication might not exist.  Diesel, a thermal engineer born in Paris to Bavarian parents, invented the engine that would come to bear his name, an internal combustion engine that doesn’t require a spark to ignite the fuel-air mixture.

His goal was to design an internal combustion engine that approached the theoretical efficiency of the Carnot cycle.   He studied various approaches and conceived of what became the basis of the diesel engine around 1890, for which he received a development patent in 1892 (“Arbeitsverfahren und Ausführungsart für Verbrennungsmaschienen”).

In 1893, he published a paper, Theorie und Construktion eines rationellen Wärmemotors zum Ersatz der Dampfmaschine und der heute bekannten Verbrennungsmotoren [Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today], that described an engine with combustion within a cylinder. Around the same time, he was almost killed by a prototype of his engine when it exploded.  The engine, a 25-horsepower, four-stroke, single vertical cylinder compression engine, was demonstrated successfully in 1897 in at the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg (MAN), and was the first to prove that fuel could be ignited without a spark.

The first diesel engine, 1897, on display in the Deutsches Museum

The first diesel engine, 1897, on display in the Deutsches Museum

As a result of his invention, Diesel became quite wealthy as trains and ships could operate far more efficiently using oil rather than coal.  His engines were soon in used to power electric and water plants, trucks, automobiles, and factories.

The diesel engine of today, albeit with multiple refinements,  is very similar to Diesel’s original design.  Diesel engines can be found in use almost everywhere, including in submarines, ships, and locomotives, not to mention modern passenger cars.