A History of the Diesel Engine

(Let's Talk About Rudolph Diesel's Great Idea)









    On February 27, 1892, Diesel filed for a patent at the Imperial Patent Office in Germany. Within a year, he was granted Patent No. 67207 for a "Working Method and Design for Combustion Engines . . .a new efficient, thermal engine." With contracts from Frederick Krupp and other machine manufacturers, Diesel began experimenting and building working models of his engine. In 1893, the first model ran under its own power with 26% efficiency, remarkably more than double the efficiency of the steam engines of his day. Finally, in February of 1897, he ran the "first diesel engine suitable for practical use, which operated at an unbelievable efficiency of 75%.

    Diesel demonstrated his engine at the Exhibition Fair in Paris, France in 1898. This engine stood as an example of Diesel's vision because it was fueled by peanut oil - the "original" biodiesel. He thought that the utilization of a biomass fuel was the real future of his engine. He hoped that it would provide a way for the smaller industries, farmers, and "common folk" a means of competing with the monopolizing industries, which controlled all energy production at that time, as well as serve as an alternative for the inefficient fuel consumption of the steam engine. As a result of Diesel's vision, compression ignited engines were powered by a biomass fuel, vegetable oil, until the 1920's and are being powered again, today, by biodiesel.

    The early diesel engines were not small enough or light enough for anything but stationary use due to the size of the fuel injection pump. They were produced primarily for industrial and shipping in the early 1900's. Ships and submarines benefited greatly from the efficiency of this new engine, which was slowly beginning to gain popularity.

    Rudolph Diesel literally disappeared in 1913. There is some question of the timing of Diesel's death. Some think it might have been accidental or even a suicide. However, others considered a possible political motivation. Diesel did not agree with the politics of Germany and was reluctant to see his engine used by their Naval fleet. With his political support directed towards France and Britain, he was on his way to England to arrange for them to use his engine when he inexplicably disappeared over the side of the ship in the English Channel. This clearly opened the way for the German submarine fleet to be powered solely by Rudolph Diesel's engine. The Wolf Packs, as they were to become known, inflicted heavy damage on Allied shipping during World War I. Still others believed that the French may have been responsible. Their submarines were already powered by diesel engines. They may have been trying to keep the engines out of both the British and German hands. Whether by accident, suicide or at the hand of others, the world had lost a brilliant engineer and biofuel visionary.

    The 1920's brought a new injection pump design, allowing the metering of fuel as it entered the engine without the need of pressurized air and its accompanying tank. The engine was now small enough to be mobile and utilized in vehicles. 1923-1924 saw the first lorries built and shown at the Berlin Motor Fair. In 1936, Mercedes Benz built the first automobile with a diesel engine - Type 260D.

    Meanwhile, America was developing a diesel industry. It had always been part of Diesel's vision that America would be a good place to use his engines. Size, need, and the access to biomass for fuel were important and part of the American scene. Adolphus Busch acquired the rights to the American production of the diesel engine. Busch-Zulger Brothers Diesel Engine Company built the first diesel engine in America in 1898. But, not much was done with development and design of the engine here until after World War I.

    Clessie L Cummins, a mechanic-inventor who had been set up in business in 1919 by the investment banker William Glanton Irwin, purchased manufacturing rights to the diesel engine from the Dutch licensor Hvid. He immediately began working on the problems, which had been inherent in the engine since its inception - those of size, weight, and instability created by the fuel system. Cummins soon developed a single disk system that measured the fuel injected. Like the other early engines, Cummins' products were stationary engines and his main market was the marine industry.

    It was also during the 1920's that diesel engine manufacturers created a major challenge for the biofuel industry. Diesel engines were altered to utilize the lower viscosity of the fossil fuel residue rather than a biomass based fuel. The petroleum industries were growing and establishing themselves during this period. Their business tactics and the wealth that many of these "oil tycoons" already possessed greatly influenced the development of all engines and machinery. The alteration was first step in the elimination of the production structure for biomass fuels and its competition as well as the first step in forcing the concept the of biomass as a potential fuel base into obscurity, erasing the possibilities from the public awareness.

    1929 and the Stock Market crash brought the threat of bankruptcy to Cummins. In an innovative move, he installed a diesel engine in a limousine and took his backer, Irwin, for a ride, assuring further investment. Cummins continued to experiment with the diesel vehicles, setting a speed record in a Duesenberg at Daytona, driving a truck with a Cummins diesel engine coast to coast on $11.22, and establishing an endurance record of 13,535 miles at Indianapolis Speedway in 1931. Cummins' diesel engines were established and trucks as well as other fleets began using them. Over the years, Cummins has continued to improve the efficiency of the diesel engine, providing technological innovations. Their engines have set a high standard for the industry, exceeding the requirements of the Clean Air Act of 1970.

    As noted before, Mercedes Benz began building diesel driven automobiles in the mid-1930's. These were dependable, enduring automobiles that lasted well into the second half of the century. Early American Ford automobiles were not diesel driven, but they were powered by the biomass fuel, ethanol. Henry Ford shared a similar vision with Rudolph Diesel. He believed plant-based fuel to be the basis of the transportation industry. In a partnership with Standard Oil, he helped further the biofuel industry in the mid-west, encouraging development of production plants and distribution stations. But, as with biodiesel, this vision was obliterated by the petroleum industry and ethanol disappeared from the scene. Europe remained the leader in the development and production of diesel and biomass fuel engines for automobiles.

    The 1970's arrived and the American people, who were firmly dependent on foreign oil, yet, unaware of the depth of their dependence, were suddenly faced with a crisis. In 1973, OPEC, the Middle Eastern organization controlling the majority of the world's oil and our main supplier, reduced the supply of oil and raised the price, sending the United States into a crisis. This crisis was recreated in 1978. Long lines at the gas pumps occurred. People panicked as they realized our whole infrastructure depended on the consistent supply of oil - foreign oil - to our economy. Conservation and alternatives became important.

    The American public looked to diesel fuel which was more efficient and economical and they began buying diesel-powered automobiles. These automobiles accounted for 85% of Peugeot's sales, 70% of Mercedes Benz's sales, 58% of Isuzu's sales, 50% Volkswagen's sales, plus a good portion of Audi's, Volvo's and Datsun's sales during the 1970's. For the first time, an American manufacturer began producing an automobile with a diesel engine. General Motors made and sold diesel automobiles in the late 1970's, accounting for 60% of all diesel sales in the United States. This surge of diesel sales in American ended in the 1980's. The price of oil had been re-stabilized and the immediate need for conservation receded in the American consciousness. Along with this, the automobiles produced by General Motors were basically converted gasoline engines. The higher compression of the diesel combustion caused blocks to crack and crankshafts to wear out prematurely. GM ended production of its diesel automobiles in 1985.

    As we entered the 21st Century, only Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen made diesel automobiles for export to the United States. Sales accounted for less than 6% for Mercedes Benz and less than 5% for Volkswagen. A few light trucks utilizing diesel engines were made by American manufacturers, but no automobiles. Diesel engine efficiency and durability kept them the engine of choice for trucks, heavy machinery, and marine engines. The marketing of the petroleum industry and the American desire for immediacy and ease have kept the use of the diesel engine from becoming part of the consciousness of the general population here in America.

    Looking to our future, our relationship with the oil industries and our dependency on foreign oil, hopefully, will drive us to explore alternatives with a more open mind. Experiments like the Veggie Van and Journey to Forever demonstrate what is possible if we are willing to change in a positive direction or maybe it is to revert back to the original vision of Rudolph Diesel and his engine.

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