Following in the footsteps of 19th-century inventors Étienne Lenoir and Siegfried Marcus, Rudolf Diesel created the first compression ignition engine at a time when industry and travel was dominated by steam power. This article will review the predecessors of what came to be known as the diesel engine, as well as its creator’s tumultuous life. Read on for a glimpse into history at the height of industrialization and innovation.
Belgian by birth, Lenoir made his mark when his experiments led him to discovering the first documented internal combustion engine. Using inefficient coal gas, Lenoir ignited the fuel with electricity and harnessed the energy from the resulting combustion. This led to rudimentary motor vehicles and modest success, but it laid significant groundwork for his contemporaries.
Long relegated to obscurity due to his Jewish heritage, Austrian innovator Siegfried Marcus’ achievements were largely unknown until after World War II. Now it is common knowledge that Marcus was the first person to use a gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine to propel a vehicle– known as “the first Marcus car” in 1870.
Internal combustion engine: A contained system where compressed fuel-and-air mixture is ignited, often by electrical means. Invented by Étienne Lenoir and mastered by Nikolaus Otto and other designers. All modern gasoline engines are internal combustion engines; they commonly use sparkplugs for ignition.
Compression ignition engine: Essentially another type of internal combustion engine, the modern diesel engine is the foremost example of compression ignition. In this case, a diesel fuel-air mixture is put under pressure until combustion occurs– no spark is needed.
Building on the foundation laid by Lenoir, Marcus and other engineers, Rudolf Diesel began work on a compression ignition engine in the late 1880s. After more than a decade of work, Diesel received several patents for his efficient, compression-based engine– eventually licensing his creation out to other engineers and manufacturers.
While frustrated by his lack of commercial success at the turn of the century, Diesel tried several times to rush his product to market. This led to further desperation and distress for the engineer, as Diesel knew his patents would expire before long. In September 1913– as the diesel engine finally approached commercial viability– Rudolf Diesel disappeared during a steamship voyage to London. Though much has been made of his disappearance, it was deemed a likely suicide at the time.
THE DIESEL ENGINE
After Rudolf Diesel’s untimely disappearance, the diesel engine continued to carry his name as it grew into wider popularity. By the early 1930s, diesel engines had all-but-supplanted steam power as the main force behind heavy industry. In the hands of the world’s designers and engineers, the diesel engine blossomed into an efficient workhorse that is still employed today in automobiles, industrial endeavours and many other uses.
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