Happy Birthday Diesel: The Diesel Turns 120

By Paul Riegler on 9 August 2013
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Rudolf Diesel's 1897 diesel engine

Rudolf Diesel’s 1897 diesel engine

On August 10, 1893, Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), after having almost been killed by an earlier prototype, built the first working prototype of what has come to be called the diesel engine.  He was the first person to prove that fuel could be ignited without a spark. What he built was a 25-horsepower, four-stroke, single vertical cylinder compression engine.

Earlier that year, Diesel 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

In 1897, Diesel successfully demonstrated the engine at the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg (MAN).  That year, he also licensed the engine to Adolphus Busch for sale in the United States and Canada.

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

It wasn’t until 1922 and 1923 that the first vehicles with a diesel engine became available, namely a tractor from Benz Söhne and a truck with an engine made by MAN and Benz.

The first automobiles appeared in the 1930s.  The first car to be introduced was the Citroën Rosalie, which was never sold.  Mercedes-Benz introduced the first commercially available diesel-powered motorcar in 1936, the 260D.  That year, Daimler-Benz produced a diesel engine for the airship Hindenburg.

Today, diesel-powered automobiles outsell petrol-powered ones in many countries including Germany and the United Kingdom.  Diesel is also starting to catch on in the United States, where seven manufacturers, including Audi, BMW, Chevrolet, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volkswagen offer numerous diesel models.

(Photo: Chris Thomas)