Today’s diesel engine is still based on the original invention.
Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris, the city in which his family had settled after leaving Germany. He studied in England and subsequently graduated as an engineer from the Technical University of Munich where one of his teachers was the inventor of the refrigerator, Carl von Linde, in whose company he was later employed.
From 1893 to 1897 he worked for the German Krupp Group and, specifically, for the prestigious affiliated company MAN AG which had, by then, already begun to produce motors.
Rudolf Diesel regarded himself as a social theorist and wrote a book, Solidarismus, in which he described his vision of the corporation. However, his contribution in this domain had scant repercussion.
On the night of 29-30 September 1913, when travelling by boat from Antwerp to London, he disappeared and the coastguard found his body in the sea several days later. The cause of his death is still unknown and has given rise to considerable speculation. The theories include suicide since, according to some sources, he was bankrupt; an accident on deck due to giddiness caused by one of his frequent headaches; and, finally, even murder because of economic interests as his engine did not depend on coal combustion and this, therefore, seriously affected certain industrialists in the sector.
In his free time, Diesel worked to design an engine that would be more efficient than those that existed at the time, the latter requiring external ignition of an internal air-fuel mixture.
Diesel managed to invent an internal combustion engine, which used the heat of air compression inside the cylinder in such a way that the fuel self ignited on coming into contact with the air just before the end of the compression process.
In 1892 he completed his design and, one year later, received the patent for the motor that bears his name.
His contribution brought great advantages, in particular engines that were smaller and lighter that previously existing ones. Moreover, they did not require the use of an additional source of fuel for ignition to take place. Besides these benefits, the motor ran at a theoretical thermal efficiency of 75% in comparison with the figure of 10% for earlier steam engines, which represented a major reduction in costs.
Diesel very quickly earned a large amount of money with his patent: the industry immediately began to use his engine in order to power automobiles, trucks and boats, as well as for electrical conduits, power plants, et cetera.
Present-day diesel engines are still essentially based on the original invention.
Wishing to see his motor being used in the industrial sector, Diesel contacted the main machinery manufacturers. He was finally contracted to produce the first prototype, which he finished in 1893. However, he nearly lost his life in one of the tests when the engine exploded. The accident proved that fuel can be ignited without a spark.
Documentary The Diesel Story, produced by Shell Oil in 1952. (In English).
In 1936, fifty years after the petrol engine (or Otto engine) first appeared, Mercedes-Benz presented its first mass produced diesel car at the Berlin Auto Show.