Skip to main content
No. 1435:
Rudolf Diesel

Today, meet Rudolf Diesel. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Linwood Bryant writes about Rudolf Diesel. Diesel saw himself as a scientific genius and the James Watt of the late nineteenth century. He was vain, oversensitive, and a little paranoid. He did not win the hearts of other engine makers.

In 1912, twenty years after Diesel conceived his engine, four people wrote books about its development. Diesel wrote one and people out to minimize his claims wrote the other three. The seeds of the dispute, Bryant argues, were sown in Diesel's conventional view of invention -- that a device is first invented, then developed, and finally improved, all in a linear sequence. Diesel left clear records of what he did. Between 1890 and 1893 he definitely invented the engine using his knowledge of thermodynamics. The idea of burning fuel slowly, and at higher pressures, was certainly his.

Diesel also worked from 1893 to 1897 at the Augsburg Machine-Works developing a working engine. During that time he had to do a lot more theoretical work and invention. In his view, he was still inventing the engine. People outside the process saw all that as development -- the dirty work anyone has to go through to make a good idea into workable hardware. After 1897 Diesel figured he was finished, and he turned to promoting the engine. But it was still woefully unready for the market. It needed eleven more years of improvement. Meanwhile, Diesel worked himself into a nervous breakdown promoting the not-yet-ready engine.

Diesel saw his own development work as a continuation of the inventive process (as it surely was). But he viewed all the innovation needed to make the engine into a commercial success as no more than mop-up work by lesser minds. He irritated other engine designers by sneering at their work. He failed to see that what made his engine viable in the marketplace was a lot of truly inventive thinking by very good engineers.

Diesel was badly troubled by criticisms of his role in creating the engine, and, in 1913, he vanished from a boat to England. His body was found ten days later. His death brought out all kinds of lurid stories about plots to sell secrets to the British. However, it seems pretty clear that he committed suicide.

I have an old Diesel engine book first published in 1912 with an introduction by Diesel. In the 4th edition, the English author ruefully says that Dr. Diesel's friendship was "more valued than he knew." In his introduction Diesel says he "finished construction of the first commercially successful motor" in 1897. Then he arrogantly asserts that few factories are good enough to build his engines -- that second-string makers shouldn't even try.

Still, there's no denying Diesel was a visionary. He admits, for example, that his engine seems to threaten England's coal industry. But, he adds, we'll soon extract our Diesel fuel from coal tar. We now know how to do that. We don't make much Diesel fuel from coal tar today, but we know how to do so -- anytime we choose to.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bryant, L., The Development of the Diesel Engine.
Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1976, pp. 432-446.

Chalkley, A. P., Diesel Engines for Land and Marine Work (with an introductory chapter by the late Dr. Rudolf Diesel). New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1917.

This is a greatly revised version of old Episode 64.


A Single-Cylinder 80 HP Diesel Engine
From Diesel Engines for Land and Marine Work, 1917