Today in History: Inventor of the Diesel Engine

old diesel engine
AXXF4M Diesel, Rudolf Christian Karl, 18.3.1858 – 29.9.1913, German engineer, inventor, diesel engine, 1890s, historic, historical, 19t


Just over 100 years ago today in 1913 the inventory of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, went missing. The man disappeared on the steamship Dresden as it traveled from Antwerp, Belgium to Harwick, England. About a week and a half later on October 10, a Belgian sailor spotted a floating body in the water while aboard a North Sea steamer. The body was later determined to be that of Diesel’s after investigation. There was much mystery surrounding Diesel’s death and still remains mysterious today. While it was ultimately judged as a suicide, many people believe to this day that Diesel was murdered.

Rudolf was born the year 1858 in Paris, dying at the age of 55. His Bavarian father Theodor was a leather goods manufacturer and had settled in France for work. The Diesel family, however, would flee to London when the Franco-Prussian war began. At the age of 12, Rudolf would go on to live with his uncle and aunt in the Bavarian town of Augsburg. Rudolf began studying at the Royal County Trade School in what was his parents’ hometown. Graduating at the top of his class at the university in Augsburg, Diesel laid the groundwork for his future success.

Before his death, Rudolf gave the world a design that would continue on his legacy. Rudolf Diesel patented the design of his diesel engine on February 28, 1892. A year after the patent, Rudolf went on to explain the design of the engine in a paper named “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Contemporary Combustion Engine.” Naming the invention a “compression ignition engine”, it could burn any fuel. The prototypes that Disel would build ran on peanut or vegetable oil and did not need an ignition system. The engine ignited by introducing fuel into a cylinder that was filled with air and compressed to extremely high pressure resulting in an extremely hot temperature.

Diesel argued that the design of the engine would be extraordinarily efficient. Diesel calculated that his engine would be as much as 75% more efficient than the steam engines which wasted 90% of their fuel energy. While not hitting his 75% mark, Diesel still impressively built his engine with an efficiency of 75%. He may not have hit his mark but the efficiency was still much better than the others.

Before the time of his death, there were more than 70,000 diesel engines working around the globe by 1912. The engines mostly ran in factories and generators. It was Diesel’s invention that revolutionized the railroad industry and would start being used in trucks and buses after WWII. The diesel type engines allowed the trucks and buses to carry heavier loads more economically.

When Diesel died he was making his way to England to attend the groundbreaking of a new diesel engine plant. He was also to meet with British Navy to speak with them about installing his diesel engine on the Navy submarines. Immediately following his death, theories and headlines ran rampant. One headline read “Inventor Thrown Into the Sea to Stop Sale of Patents to British Government” and others were worried that the inventor was “Murdered by Agents from Big Oil Trusts.”

There is a chance that Rudolf did throw himself overboard. Before Diesel’s departure from his wife, he handed his wife a package and told her to wait a week before opening it. When Diesel’s wife finally opened the package, she found cash and financial statements inside. The statements showed how close the family was to having to file for bankruptcy. After disappearing, Diesel’s personal belongings were found at the rail of the ship in a neatly folded manner. He was also not pleased with how his designs were co-opted. While it can’t necessarily can’t be proven, such circumstances do point toward suicide.