Rudolf Diesel once said “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time.”
Born in Paris in 1858 Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel was a social thinker ahead of his time in some respects. His most famous invention was born out of a desire to help artisans to be able to afford to compete with big industry. He also hoped it would help farmers as they could produce their own fuel.
To start at the beginning Rudolf’s father was a leather craftsman which probably explains why Rudolf would want to help other artisans in his later life. Rudolf was keen to learn and a good linguist probably thanks to his mother who was a governess and language tutor. His parents were Germans who had moved to Paris in the pursuit of a better way of life, unfortunately the family experienced a lot of hardships. Both of his parents encouraged him to keep learning and after seeing his fascination with machinery his father would take him to local factories. Rudolf loved the machines, but his social conscience was also awakened when he saw the working conditions, this stayed with him for life.
When he was 12 his parents sent him to live with a cousin in Augsburg as they could no longer afford to keep him. This ended up being a lucky break for Rudolf as his cousin also encouraged his studies and kept him while he attended school earning a scholarship, at 18, to Munich Polytechnic. It was at the polytechnic that he found the commercial side to inventions. In an effort to make the geometry class more interesting Rudolf made a series of plastic models to show different mathematical surfaces these were copied and sold to schools around Germany. The income was handy as during this time Rudolf was sending whatever money he could to his parents who were still in Paris.
After graduating from Munich Polytechnic Rudolf became a refrigeration engineer working for a factory in Switzerland, during his time there he invented a process for producing crystal clear ice. The company he was working for were not interested in the process so he left, taking it with him and ended up back in Paris working for a German firm selling his ice-machine. It was around this time that he met a young German woman called Martha Flasche who was employed as a governess. They had a lot of common interests and were married in 1883; they went on to have three children.
In 1893 he published his now renowned paper Theory and Design of a Rational Thermal Engine to replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today.’ In 1894 he filed for a patent for his engine and then was almost killed when his prototype exploded. The engine did, however, prove that fuel could be ignited without a spark. He spent the time he was hospitalized studying the internal combustion engines of Nikolaus Otto and the writings of Sadi Carnot to come up with improvements for his model. He managed to operate his first successful engine in 1896 and was granted a patent for an internal combustion engine AKA the diesel engine in 1898. This first successful engine was run on peanut oil in line with his hopes that farmers could produce their own fuel.
His dream of this engine enabling the small craftsman and artisans to withstand the power of big business remained unfulfilled as big business instead snapped up his idea. Rudolf Diesel was a millionaire several times over. Unfortunately, although he was an amazing engineer and inventor Rudolf was absolutely useless with controlling money and by the time of his tragic death in 1913 he was broke.
In 1908 Rudolf worked with a Swiss firm called Saurer to create a faster running engine, but the automobile industry was slow to adopt the technology. As Rudolf said The automobile engine will come, and then I will consider my life’s work complete,’ unfortunately the first diesel engine used in a truck was in 1924 and Rudolf died in 1913.
Rudolf’s death was a shock to everyone and conspiracy theorists went berserk when his body was found floating in the North Sea. He boarded the ferry Dresden to travel to London where he was due to be the guest of honour at the opening of a new diesel factory. At 10pm after dinner on September 29th, 1913 he retired to his cabin and wasn’t seen alive again. The general consensus is that he committed suicide as he was in debt, but there are also theories that the Germans killed him to keep him from selling his engines to the British & US armed forces. Whatever really happened we’ll never know, but maybe one day we’ll see vehicles using biodiesel as opposed to diesel in his honour.