Most 4×4 trucks of recent times draw their power from a diesel engine under their skin. But have you ever wondered how the diesel engine came about? And the mystery of the designer’s death?
In the early 1900’s Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel’s invention of the diesel engine has made a lasting impact on the world. On September 29th 1913, Rudolf Diesel boarded a steamer boat in Antwerp destined for London and two important meetings. The British Navy were interested in his diesel engine for their fleet of submarines, plus an appointment with the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Company, but he never reached London. He was last seen at 10pm on the very night he boarded. When crew went to wake him a 6-15am as requested the cabin was found empty, the bed and nightclothes undisturbed, no one ever saw him alive again. His decomposed body was found 10 days later by a Dutch crew floating in the North Sea and identified by he’s ID card and personal belongings. Judges ruled death by suicide but for a man who had reached success this ruling left many with doubts. Rumours of espionage due to the Naval contacts and murder were abound but despite his death Diesel’s blueprints and engine lived on, it remains to date the most efficient internal combustion engine ever invented.
Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris in March 1858 but due to war was evacuated with his German parents to London at the age of 12. He was then sent to Germany to live with his wealthier relatives an Uncle that taught maths, to ensure he received a good education. By the age of 14 Diesel was captivated by engineering and gained practical experience working in Switzerland whilst waiting for exams before returning to school to graduate in 1880 with top honours.
By 1890 Diesel had married and gained a management job in research and development with Linde having already achieved patents with them in France and Germany for refrigeration and ice plant.
This management roll now allowed Diesel to concentrate on his real passion theoretical and practical limitations of fuel efficiency with thermal dynamics. He recognised that steam power was currently wasting 90% of its fuel efficiency and was uneconomical for small businesses to run. He began working on various different designs, one fuelling a steam engine on ammonia vapour, which exploded nearly killing him. After an extensive period of recovery in hospital and never regaining his full health or vision he continued to work at fuel efficiency creating at one point a solar powered machine.
In 1893 he published a paper Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today. He had discovered fuel could be injected at the end of the compression cycle and ignited by high air temperature caused by the compression stroke. He allowed the temperatures to rise more slowly enabling more heat to be converted to power equalling more efficiency. Diesel’s engine was initially run on peanut oil, he expressed an interest in using coal dust and later experimented with vegetable oil confirming, “I have recently repeated these experiments on a large scale with full success and entire confirmation of the results formerly obtained.”
His engine was opposed to the current Karl Benz 1886 internal combustion engine that sparked and ignited the air and fuel mixture.
By August 1893 Diesel had built his first working example, a 10 feet high, single cylinder engine, his first ‘Diesel’ engine. By 1897 after years of refining and with the help of several German firms Diesel demonstrated a 25 horsepower, four-stroke engine capable of converting 26.8 % of the heat from fuel to power. This made his engine more then 60% more efficient then the steam engine and by it’s simple design extremely reliable, they were more robust and delivered a high level of torque. By 1898 after a display at the Munich Exhibition Diesel’s engine was a commercial success almost overnight as many industries found uses for his motor. Rudolf Diesel owned the patents rights across the globe and became a wealthy man, his engine eventually replacing the steam engine on trains, ships, trucks and cars.
At the time of his mysterious death he had left his wife a bag to be opened one week from his departure to London containing the equivalent in todays money of 1.2 million dollars having emptied his bank accounts. This action both credited the suicide theory and increased the espionage theory, but over a hundred years on the Diesel engines still remains a popular choice, and still no one knows to-date, what really happened on that fateful night to the farther of the Diesel engine that we have all come to love.