Rudolf Diesel was born of German parentage in Paris in 1858. His father was a self- employed leather worker who, by all accounts, managed to provide only a meager income for his wife and three children. Their stay in the City of Light was punctuated by frequent moves from one shabby flat to another. Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the family became political undesirables and was forced to emigrate to England. Work was almost impossible to find, and in desperation, Rudolf’s parents sent the boy to Augsburg to live with an uncle. There he was enrolled in school.
Diesel’s natural bent was for mathematics and mechanics. He graduated as the head of his class, and on the basis of his teachers’ recommendations and a personal interview by the Bavarian director of education, he received a scholarship to the prestigious Polytechnikum in Munich.
His professor of theoretical engineering was the renowned Carl von Linde, who invented the ammonia refrigeration machine and devised the first practical method of liquefying air. Linde was an authority on thermodynamics and high- compression phenomena. During one of his lectures he remarked that the steam engine had a thermal efficiency of 6–10%; that is, one-tenth or less of the heat energy of its fuel was used to turn the crankshaft, and the rest was wasted. Diesel made special note of this fact. In 1879 he asked himself whether heat could not be directly converted into mechanical energy instead of first passing through a working fluid such as steam.
On the final examination at the Polytechnikum, Diesel achieved the highest honors yet attained at the school. Professor Linde arranged a position for the young diploma engineer in Paris, where, in few months, he was promoted to general man- ager of the city’s first ice-making plant. Soon he took charge of distribution of Linde machines over southern Europe.
By the time he was thirty, Diesel had married, fathered three children, and was recognized throughout the European scientific community as one of the most gifted engineers of the period. He presented a paper at the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1889—the only German so honored. When he received the first of several citations of merit from a German university, he announced wryly in his acceptance speech: “I am an iceman. . .”
The basis of this acclaim was his preeminence in the new technology of refrig- eration, his several patents, and a certain indefinable air about the young man that marked him as extraordinary. He had a shy, self-deprecating humor and an absolute passion for factuality. Diesel could be abrupt when faced with incompetence and was described by relatives as “proud.” At the same time he was sympathetic to his workers and made friends among them. It was not unusual for Diesel to wear the blue cotton twill that was the symbol of manual labor in the machine trades.
He had been granted several patents for a method of producing clear ice, which, because it looked like natural ice, was much in demand by the upper classes. Professor Linde did not approve of such frivolity, and Diesel turned to more serious concerns. He spent several years in Paris, working on an ammonia engine, but in the end was defeated by the corrosive nature of this gas at pressure and high temperatures.
The theoretical basis of this research was a paper published by N.L.S. Carnot in 1824. Carnot set himself to the problem of determining how much work could be accomplished by a heat engine employing repeatable cycles. He conceived the engine drawn in Fig. 1-1. Body 1 supplies the heat; it can be a boiler or other heat exchanger. The piston is at position C in the drawing. As the air is heated, it expands in corre- spondence to Boyle’s law. If we assume a frictionless engine, its temperature will not rise. Instead, expansion will take place, driving the piston to D. Then A is removed, and the piston continues to lift to E. At this point the temperature of the air falls until it exactly matches cold surface 2 (which can be a radiator or cooling tank). The air column is now placed in contact with 2, and the piston falls because the air is compressed. Note, however, that the temperature of the air does not change. At B cold body 2 is removed, and the piston falls to A. During this phase the air gains temperature, until it is equal to
2. The piston climbs back into the cylinder.
The temperature of the air, and consequently the pressure, is higher during expansion than during compression. Because the pressure is greater during expansion, the power produced by the expansion is greater than that consumed by the compression. The net result is a power output that is available for driving other machinery.
Of course this is an “ideal” cycle. It does not take into account mechanical friction nor transfer of heat from the air to the piston and cylinder walls. The infinitesimal dif- ference of heat between 1 and 2 is sufficient to establish a gradient and drive the engine. It would be completely efficient.
In 1892 and 1893 Diesel obtained patent specifications from the German gov- ernment covering his concept for a new type of Verbrennungskraftmaschinen, or heat engine. The next step was to build one. At the insistence of his wife, he pub- lished his ideas in a pamphlet and was able to interest the leading Augsburg engine builder in the idea. A few weeks later the giant Krupp concern opened negotiations. With typical internationalism he signed another contract with the Sulzer Brothers of Switzerland.
The engine envisioned in the pamphlet and protected by the patent specifica- tions had these characteristics:
• Compression of air prior to fuel delivery. The compression was to be adia- batic; that is, no heat would be lost to the piston crown or cylinder head during this process.
• Metered delivery of fuel so compression pressures would not be raised by combustion temperatures. The engine would operate on a constant-pressure cycle; expanding gases would keep precisely in step with the falling piston. This is a salient characteristic of Carnot’s ideal gas cycle, and stands in con- trast to the Otto cycle, in which combustion pressures rise so quickly upon spark ignition that we describe it as a constant-volume engine.
• Adiabatic expansion.
• Instantaneous exhaust at constant volume.
It is obvious that Diesel did not expect a working engine to attain these specifi- cations. Adiabatic compression and exhaust phases are, by definition, impossible unless the engine metal is at combustion temperature. Likewise, fuel metering cannot be so precise as to limit combustion pressures to compression levels. Nor can a cylin- der be vented instantaneously. But these specifications are significant in that they demonstrate an approach to invention. The rationale of the diesel engine was to save fuel by as close an approximation to the Carnot cycle as materials would allow. The steam, or Rankine cycle, engine was abysmal in this regard; and the Otto four- stroke-cycle spark or hot-tub e-ignition engine was only marginally better.
This approach, from the mathematically ideal to materially practical, is exactly the reverse of the one favored by inventors of the Edison, Westinghouse, and Kettering school. When Diesel visited America in 1912, Thomas A. Edison explained to the young inventor that these men worked inductively, from the existing tech- nology, and not deductively, from some ideal or model. Diesel felt that such procedure was at best haphazard, even though the results of Edison and other inventors of the inductive school were obviously among the most important. Diesel believed that productivity should be measured by some absolute scientific standard.
The first Diesel engine was a single-cylinder four-cycle design, operated by gasoline vapor. The vapor was sprayed into the cylinder near top dead center by means of an air compressor. The engine was in operation in July of 1893. However, it was discovered that a misreading of the blueprints had caused an increase in the size of the chamber. This was corrected with a new piston, and the engine was con- nected to a pressure gauge. The gauge showed approximately 80 atmospheres before it shattered, spraying the room with brass and glass fragments. The best output of what Diesel called his “black mistress” was slightly more than 2 hp—not enough power to overcome friction and compression losses. Consequently, the engine was redesigned.
The second model was tested at the end of 1894. It featured a variable- displacement fuel pump to match engine speed with load. In February of the next year, the mechanic Linder noted a remarkable development. The engine had been sputtering along, driven by a belt from the shop power plant, but Linder noticed that the driving side of the belt was slack, indicating that the engine was putting power into the system. For the first time the Diesel engine ran on its own.
Careful tests—and Diesel was nothing if not careful and methodical—showed that combustion was irregular. The next few months were devoted to redesigning the nozzle and delivery system. This did not help, and in what might have been a fit of desperation, Diesel called upon Robert Bosch for an ignition magneto. Bosch personally fitted one of his low-tension devices to the engine, but it had little effect on the combustion problem. Progress came about by varying the amount of air injected with the fuel, which, at this time, was limited to kerosene or gasoline.
A third engine was built with a smaller stroke/bore ratio and fitted with two injectors. One delivered liquid fuel, the other a mixture of fuel and air. This was quite successful, producing 25 hp at 200 rpm. It was several times as efficient as the first model. Further modifications of the injector, piston, and lubrication system ensued, and the engine was deemed ready for series production at the end of 1896.
Diesel turned his attention to his family, music, and photography. Money began to pour in from the patent licensees and newly organized consortiums wanting to build engines in France, England, and Russia. The American brewer Adolphus Busch purchased the first commercial engine, similar to the one on display at the Budweiser plant in St. Louis today. He acquired the American patent rights for one million marks, which at the current exchange rate amounted to a quarter of a million dollars—more than Diesel had hoped for.
The next stage of development centered around various fuels. Diesel was already an expert on petroleum, having researched the subject thoroughly in Paris in an attempt to refine it by extreme cold. It soon became apparent that the engine could be adapted to run on almost any hydrocarbon from gasoline to peanut oil. Scottish and French engines routinely ran on shale oil, while those sold to the Nobel combine in Russia operated well on refinery tailings. In a search for the ultimate fuel, Diesel attempted to utilize coal dust. As dangerous as this fuel is in storage, he was able to use it in a test engine.
These experiments were cut short by production problems. Not all the licensees had the same success with the engine. In at least one instance, a whole production run had to be recalled. The difficulty was further complicated by a shortage of trained technicians. A small malfunction could keep the engine idle for weeks, until the customer lost patience and sent it back to the factory. With these embarrassments came the question of whether the engine had been oversold. Some believed that it
needed much more development before being put on the market. Diesel was con- fident that his creation was practical—if built and serviced to specifications. But he encouraged future development by inserting a clause in the contracts that called for pooled research: the licensees were to share the results of their research on Diesel engines.
Diesel’s success was marred in two ways. For one, he suffered exhausting patent suits. The Diesel engine was not the first to employ the principle of compression ignition; Akroyd Stuart had patented a superficially similar design in 1890. Also, Diesel had a weakness for speculative investments. This weakness, along with a tendency to maintain a high level of personal consumption, cost Rudolf Diesel millions. His American biographers, W. Robert Nitske and Charles Morrow Wilson, estimate that the mansion in Munich cost a million marks to construct at the turn of the century.
The inventor eventually found himself in the uncomfortable position of living on his capital. His problem was analogous to that of an author who is praised by the critics but who cannot seem to sell his books. Diesel engines were making headway in stationary and marine applications, but they were expensive to build and required special service techniques. True mass production was out of the question. At the same time, the inventor had become an international celebrity, acclaimed on three continents.
Diesel returned to work. After mulling a series of projects, some of them decid- edly futuristic, he settled on an automobile engine. Two such engines were built. The smaller, 5-hp model was put into production, but sales were disappointing. The engine is, by nature of its compression ratio, heavy and, in the smaller sizes, diffi- cult to start. (The latter phenomenon is due to the unfavorable surface/volume ratio of the chamber as piston size is reduced. Heat generated by compression tends to bleed off into the surrounding metal.) A further complication was the need for com- pressed air to deliver the fuel into the chamber. Add to these problems precision machine work, and the diesel auto engine seemed impractical. Mercedes-Benz offered a diesel-powered passenger car in 1936. It was followed by the Austin taxi (remembered with mixed feelings by travelers to postwar London), by the Land Rover, and more recently, by the Peugeot. However desirable diesel cars are from the point of view of fuel economy and longevity, they have just recently become competitive with gasoline-powered cars.
Diesel worked for several months on a locomotive engine built by the Suizer Brothers in Switzerland. First tests were disappointing, but by 1914 the Prussian and Saxon State Railways had a diesel in everyday service. Of course, most of the world’s locomotives are diesel-powered today.
Maritime applications came as early as 1902. Nobel converted some of his tanker fleet to diesel power, and by 1905 the French navy was relying on these engines for their submarines. Seven years later, almost 400 boats and ships were propelled solely or in part by compression engines. The chief attraction was the space saved, which increased the cargo capacity or range.
In his frequent lectures Diesel summed up the advantages of his invention. The first was efficiency, which was beneficial to the owner and, by extension, to all of society. In immediate terms, efficiency meant cost savings. In the long run, it meant
conserving world resources. Another advantage was that compression engines could be built on any scale from the fractional horsepower to the 2400-hp Italian Tosi of 1912. Compared to steam engines, the diesel was compact and clean. Rudolf Diesel was very much concerned with the question of air pollution, and mentioned it often.
But the quintessential characteristic, and the one that might explain his devotion to his “black mistress,” was her quality. Diesel admitted that the engines were expensive, but his goal was to build the best, not the cheapest.
During this period Diesel turned his attention to what his contemporaries called “the social question.” He had been poor and had seen the effects of industrialization firsthand in France, England, and Germany. Obviously machines were not freeing men, or at least not the masses of men and women who had to regulate their lives by the factory system. This paradox of greater output of goods and intensified phys- ical and spiritual poverty had been seized on by Karl Marx as the key “contradiction” of the capitalistic system. Diesel instinctively distrusted Marx because he distrusted the violence that was implicit in “scientific socialism.” Nor could he take seriously a theory of history whose exponent claimed it was based on absolute principles of mathematical integrity.
He published his thoughts on the matter under the title Solidarismus in 1903. The book was not taken seriously by either the public or politicians. The basic concept was that nations were more alike than different. The divisions that characterize modern society are artificial to the extent that they do not have an economic rationale. To find solidarity, the mass of humanity must become part owners in the sources of production. His formula was for every worker to save a penny a day. Eventually these pennies would add up to shares or part shares in business enter- prises: Redistributed, wealth and, more important, the sense of controlling one’s des- tiny would be achieved without violence or rancor through the effects of the accumulated capital of the workers.
Diesel wrote another book that was better received. Entitled Die Enstehung des Dieselmotors, it recounted the history of his invention and was published in the last year of his life.
For years Diesel had suffered migraine headaches, and in his last decade, he developed gout, which at the end forced him to wear a special oversized slipper. Combined with this was a feeling of fatigue, a sense that his work was both done and undone, and that there was no one to continue. Neither of his two sons showed any interest in the engine, and he himself seemed to have lost the iron concentra- tion of earlier years when he had thought nothing of a 20-hour workday. It is probable that technicians in the various plants knew more about the current state of diesel development than he did.
And the bills mounted. A consultant’s position, one that he would have coveted in his youth, could only postpone the inevitable; a certain level of indebtedness makes a salary superfluous. Whether he was serious in his acceptance of the English- offered consultant position is unknown. He left his wife in Frankfort in apparent good spirits and gave her a present. It was an overnight valise, and she was instructed not to open it for a week. When she did, she found it contained 20,000 marks. This was, it is believed, the last of his liquid reserves. At Antwerp he boarded the ferry to Warwick in the company of three friends. They had a convivial supper on
board and retired to their staterooms. The next morning Rudolf Diesel could not be found. One of the crew discovered his coat, neatly folded under a deck rail. The cap- tain stopped the ship’s progress, but there was no sign of the body. A few days later a pilot boat sighted a body floating in the channel, removed a corn purse and spec- tacle case from the pockets, and set the-corpse adrift. The action was not unusual or callous; seamen had, and still do have, a horror of retrieving bodies from the sea. These items were considered by the family to be positive identification. They accepted the death as suicide, although the English newspapers suggested foul play at the hands of foreign agents who did not want Diesel’s engines in British submarines.