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Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel: Invention, Contribution & Patent

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel and his most famous invention, the diesel engine. Diesel harnessed the power of heated fuel into an internal combustion engine that changed the world of transportation.

Who Was Rudolf Diesel?

Have you ever wondered how large semi-trucks pull such heavy loads? Semi-trucks are powered by diesel engines, invented in the early 1900s and are more powerful than the previous steam engines. Let's learn a bit more about Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine.

Rudolf Diesel was born in 1858 in Paris, France. His family was German, however, and in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, his family was deported. Diesel's father sent him to Augsburg, Germany, to complete his education. Although he was too sick with typhoid fever to graduate on time, he excelled at his engineering studies and upon graduation went to work for a refrigerator manufacturing company in Paris.

Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, 1883
Rudolf Diesel

Invention and Patent

Although Diesel was successful in his work for the refrigerator company, he had something bigger in mind: he wanted to invent a new kind of engine. He set to work on an internal combustion engine, an engine in which the fuel is burned inside a chamber to create power. Internal combustion engines were still fairly new at that time. Before this, most engines had been external combustion engines, in which the engine heated an outside power source (for example, water to create steam).

The difference between Diesel's engine and other internal combustion engines was that a diesel engine did not need an additional fuel source for the ignition, making them more efficient than other types of engines. Diesel estimated that 90% of an engine's fuel was wasted energy, and believed he could decrease this to 25% by using a different type of engine. Additionally, Diesel's engines were smaller and lighter, and therefore more portable. This meant that they could go places heavier engines (including gasoline combustion engines) could not go at the time. Another advantage was that they could be powered by either organic-based fuel (biodiesel) or petroleum-based fuel (like diesel-formulated gasoline).

Diesel started toying with an early version of his engine in 1893, when he successfully tested the first prototype powered by peanut oil, but it was not until 1898, when he exhibited his engine at the Munich Exhibition, that it would really take off. He was awarded a patent (a license to exclusively manufacture his invention) in August 1898, and became very successful manufacturing and selling his new technology. Soon, diesel engines were in cars, trucks, boats, factories, and oil drilling equipment. Because of their diesel engines, none of these vehicles had to carry an external fuel source, such as coal, so they were cheaper and easier to operate.

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