Who invented the Diesel Engine

Controversy surrounds the demise of the diesel engine’s inventor.

Objects from a body pulled from the English Channel proved the identity of Rudolph Diesel but what could prove how he died?

Early Life

Rudolph was born in 1858 to Bavarian immigrants Theodor and Elise Diesel in Paris, France. Here he would spend his early childhood until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 abruptly made his father an undesirable. The family fled to London for a time but Rudolph was later to return to France to live with an aunt and uncle in Augsburg so that he could attend the Royal County Trade School where his uncle, Christoph Barnickel was a mathematics teacher.

When he finished school at the top of his class in 1873, he informed his parents that he wanted to become an engineer. To that end he enrolled in the Industrial School of Augsburg. His brilliance there led to a scholarship from Munich’s Royal Bavarian Polytechnic in 1975.

Meeting Professor von Linde

It was a fateful turn of events for in Munich young Diesel met Professor Carl von Linde who would have a profound influence on his life. Sick from a bout with typhoid, Dielsel was unable to graduate with his class in 1879 but made up the time waiting for the next exam by gathering practical experience in Winterthur, Switzerland. In 1880 Rudolph graduated with honours and returned to Paris where he assisted Professor von Linde with designing and building a refrigeration and ice plant. A year later he was director of the plant. For the next few years Diesel continued to work for von Linde all the while obtaining patents for various inventions in both Germany and France. In 1883 he married Martha Flasche and in 1890 moved with his wife and three children to Berlin where he would manage von Linde’s corporate research and development department. It was while he was here that he started looking for ways to develop patents outside the refrigeration business that he could use for his own purposes.

Diesel’s Engine

One of his early projects was building a steam engine using ammonia vapor. This was an unfortunate choice for during experiments the machine exploded almost killing the young inventor. As it was Diesel spent months in the hospital and suffered ill health and damage to his eyes as a result. By 1887 he had published a treatise that formed the basis for his subsequent work on the Diesel engine. By this time the automobile had been invented and Diesel went to work for Heinrich von Buz at an engine factory in Augsburg, Germany where he was able to test and develop his ideas for an automobile engine. Diesel was interested in vegetable oil for fuel and his early engine ran on peanut oil. This proved unpopular at the time and it is only now that the concept of biofuel is taking hold.

Mysterious Death of Rudolph Diesel

On September 29, 1913, Rudolph Diesel walked on board the steamer Dresden in Antwerp harbour. He was on his way to meet with representatives of Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Ltd. in London with the view of opening a factory to build his engine. He dined aboard ship and then retired for the evening, leaving a 6:15 a.m. wake-up call. He was never seen alive again.

On October 9 the crew of the Dutch fishing boat Coertsen, pulled the badly decomposed body of a man from the channel. They removed his personal effects and returned the corpse to the sea. The items, which included an eyeglass case, a wallet, a pocket knife and a pill case were later identified by Diesel’s son, Eugen as having belonged to his father. Speculation was rife in the newspapers as reporters sought answers to the mystery. Some concluded that he was murdered by German agents to prevent his engine system from falling into British hands on the eve of the First World War. Another theory was that he was killed by hitmen hired by the petroleum industry. Still others decided that he committed suicide. The later was unlikely as he was reported to be “excited about the possibility that his invention would become more widespread.” About the only theory not advanced was the simple possibility that he had accidentally fallen overboard and drowned. To this date the mystery has never been solved.

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