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Rudolph Diesel - Visionary Of Power

The Brilliant Mind Of Rudolf Diesel

Text By Bill Senefsky, Photography by Courtesy of Man Diesel

Rudolf Diesel was the second of three children born to Theodor and Elise Diesel on March 18, 1858 in the city of Paris, France. The son of German-born immigrants, Theodor Diesel had migrated from his hometown of Augsburg, in the then Kingdom of Bavaria, in 1848. A member of the bookbinding trade, Theodor met and married Elise Strobel in Paris in 1855.

Rudolf spent his first 12 years in France, but the beginning of hostilities of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 forced foreigners to leave French soil. The family, victims of extreme poverty, traveled to London, England, but young Rudolf was sent to Augsburg, Bavaria, to live with an aunt and uncle. The reason was simple-Uncle Christoph taught mathematics at the Royal County Trade School.

Within two years, Rudolf was speaking fluent German and becoming interested in engineering. He graduated in 1873 with honors and went on to attend the Industrial School of Augsburg. Two years later, he accepted a merit scholarship from Royal Bavarian Polytechnic in Munich, Germany.

While attending Polytechnic, he was taken under the wing of the noted Carl von Linde, one of his favorite professors. Rudolf unfortunately caught typhoid fever and was not able to graduate with his class in July of 1879. Undaunted, he procured a position with Sulzer Brothers Machine Works in Switzerland while he waited for the next exit exam cycle.

Finishing in January of 1880 with academic honors, he was asked by Professor von Linde to come to Paris to assist in the design, layout, and construction of an advanced refrigeration plant and ice facility. True to form, Rudolf became plant director a short year later.

Refrigeration engineering was cutting-edge technology during this period and it continued to hold Rudolf's interest. While director at Linde Refrigeration, Rudolf received many patents for his work. He married in 1883 and seven years later, he and his family moved to Berlin upon his acceptance as manager of Linde's corporate research and development department. Rudolf continued to develop patents in the refrigeration field but decided to expand his field of interest.

Powerplant Design
In 1890, steam power was common, accepted, and inefficient. Rudolf's research into fuel efficiency and thermodynamics led him to experiment with a steam expansion engine modified to run on ammonia vapor. He was very familiar with ammonia, as it was the chief working fluid in refrigeration. While testing a working prototype, which he designed, the machine suddenly exploded. The explosion could have killed Rudolf but instead left him with the consequences of ill health and slight loss of eyesight for the rest of his life.

Undeterred, his interest in radical engines continued with work on an engine based on the Sadi Carnot cycle, or Rational Heat design. This particular engine had been described in theory in 1824. Rudolf's idea was to replace the common steam and so-called combustion engines of the period. Rudolf knew from experience that even the best steam engines wasted 90 percent of the energy available from their fuel. He felt that the Carnot Cycle engine would be driven by much higher efficiency ratios. In the end, this concept was considered a failure and Rudolf began working on another theory.

The Diesel Development Process
Rudolf designed, created, built, and tested his novel compression-ignition engine during a long, 13-year process beginning in 1885. His first laboratory and machine shop was located, not surprisingly, in Paris. In Rudolf's prototype, the incoming fuel was injected at the end of the compression stroke with the fuel being ignited by the higher temperatures resulting from it. Rudolf built his working prototype engine based on his 1893 paper titled, "Theory and Design of a Rational Thermal Engine To Replace the Steam Engine and the Combustion Engines Known Today."

Rudolph handbuilt his first engine based on his written theories that same year, and though the mill initially only ran for short periods, he had the foresight to patent his machine.

On August 10, 1893, his prototype, a single 10-foot cast-iron cylinder equipped with a flywheel at its base, ran under its own power for the first time. Two more years passed, and with them came many improvements to the engine before production could be considered.

By the end of 1896, however, Rudolf had proven his point by developing an engine that was 75.6 percent mechanically efficient. Rudolf had the help of Springer Verlag in Berlin, along with Heinrich von Buz, the director of MAN AG in Augsburg, Germany.

Patents were granted in both Germany and the United States for the novel diesel powerplant. Rudolf felt that the United States would prove to be his largest market. In fact, in 1897, the Busch-Zulzer Brothers Diesel Engine Company of St. Louis produced America's first diesel. The company's president was none other than Adolphus Busch, of Budweiser brewery, who purchased the United States licensing rights for $1 million in cash. By this time, Rudolf was a millionaire as a result of the international franchise fees his patents had produced.

Rudolf began a new venture to produce his engines in Augsburg in 1899. Sadly, personal fatigue caused by overwork doomed the business from the beginning. Company capital also suffered from stock speculators, which quickly sunk any long-term survival. Rudolf furthered his work with lecture tours and licensing agreements with other companies, which fueled quicker development of his diesel engine. Rudolf also expected that his diesel powerplants would run on a variety of fuels, including coal dust and vegetable and seed oils. To prove his point, he ran his demonstration engines at the 1900 World's Fair on peanut oil. Pollution was an issue with Rudolf, as he saw his engine as a solution to the inefficient, polluting steam engines of the period.

With his direct daily involvement in engine development ending, he began to experience long periods of depression. Compounding this issue was the constant pursuit of him by determined competitors who had succeeded in the courts and acquired rights to his engine. Finally, in 1908, when the initial patents for his diesel engine expired, Rudolf was able to concentrate on the development of smaller diesels for use in trucks, buses, and automobiles. Working with the Swiss company Saurer, his improvements quietly continued. Sadly, his depression periods continued when his new engine ideas didn't materialize.

Mysterious Death
On the evening of September 29, 1913, the post office packet steamer Dresden left its port of Antwerp for a regular trip to Harwich, England. On board that night, Rudolf took dinner and retired to his cabin at 10 p.m. requesting to be awakened the next morning at 6:45 a.m. He was on his way to attend a meeting with the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Company in London. Close associates noted he was extremely excited to attend this meeting, as he regarded it as yet another profitable business opportunity. Tragically, he was never seen alive again.

Strangely, a full 10 days passed before the crew of the Dutch vessel Coertsen happened to discover a male corpse floating in the English Channel. The victim, obviously in an advanced state of decay, prevented the crew from fully bringing it aboard. Ship personnel, however, managed to retrieve several personal items. A wallet, pocketknife, eyeglasses, and pill cases were removed from what was left of the victim's clothing. Eugen Diesel identified these items as belonging to his late father on October 13, 1913.

Wild stories about Rudolf's death (relying on pure speculation) abounded during the period. Some felt that German secret agents had assassinated Rudolf to prevent his engine designs from falling into British hands. Others felt that leaders of the petroleum industry had put out a contract on his life.

Such conspiracy theories continue to this day, including the possible case of homicide.

Competitive business interests may also have been a factor, with earlier hostility leveled at Rudolf from both the coal industrialists and the steam engine producers. It is also known that Rudolf thought of himself as more of a global citizen, which irked many high up in the German regime with their new form of nationalism. The event took place in the final months leading to World War I, and passions were rising in Europe. Rudolf, after all, had influential friends in France, Britain, and the United States.

Other historians have also noted that Rudolf had periods of deep depression, and that he had a highly neurotic personality. Close associates knew he had been worn down over the years by his engine's development, along with the constant battle regarding patent rights. Some investigators feel his demise may have been a simple case of suicide. Similar events caused many to consider this option. Other observers of the period felt his was nothing more than a simple case of drowning, with him accidentally falling overboard. In the final analysis, the evidence surrounding his demise is severely limited, so the range of explanations continues.

Diesel's Contribution
Though best known for the engine that bears his name, it must also be remembered that Rudolf Diesel was considered an eminent thermo-engineer, a patron of the arts, a sociologist, and perhaps least known-as a linguist.

Rudolf originally conceived his compression-ignited heat engine as an alternative powerplant that would enable independent businessmen to compete with the established industries. It was his hope that the diesel engine would break the monopoly held by the steam engine. Rudolf's other goal was to make his engine available in sizing related to cost, power requirements, and available sources of fuel. So no matter what the need, a diesel engine could supply the solution.

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By Bill Senefsky
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