On September 29th 1913, Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the famous engine that bears his name, disappeared from the steamship Dresden while traveling from Belgium to England. Eleven days later, a Belgian sailor aboard a cargo steamer spotted a body floating in the water. It turned out to be Diesel. To this day, the circumstances surrounding Diesel’s death are a mystery. Some say that he committed suicide but others say he was murdered by a foreign government and thrown overboard.
Rudolf Diesel, the son of German-born parents, grew up in Paris and in 1870, his family was deported to England following the outbreak of the Franco-German War. When he was in his early teens, he was sent to live with relatives in Augsburg, Germany, his father’s native town. His technical education began at a local Technical High School (Trade School) in Munich where he became an outstanding student in the fields of science and engineering. In 1880, he landed his first job in Paris, working for the famous refrigeration engineer Carl von Linde.
Diesel patented a design for his self-igniting internal combustion engine on February 28, 1892. The following year he published a scholarly paper called “The Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engine.” What was special about his design is that his engine could burn a variety of fuels. The prototypes he built were designed for petroleum oils but could even burn peanut or vegetable oil; no other engine could do that. In addition, his engine needed no complex ignition system. It was simple, it self-ignited by introducing fuel into a cylinder of air that had been compressed to an extremely high pressure and was, therefore, hot enough to begin combustion.
However, the goal of Diesel’s engine was not to just simplify engine construction. Being an expert at thermodynamics, Diesel’s calculations revealed that his engine could be as much as 75 percent efficient. In other words, 75% of the fuel used would be turned into useful power. In contrast, the other most popular engine, the steam engine, was just 10% efficient.
I didn’t take long for many firms to license his design and start making “Diesel Engines.” By 1912, there were more than 70,000 of them working around the world, mostly in factories and as power generators. Although there were American diesel cars on the road prior to WWII, many foreign countries were developing prototypes. Toyota, according to Kims Toyota of Laurel, a local Toyota dealer in Laurel, MS, was one of them. Even as early as 1939, Kiichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s chief engineer, said they were just a year or so away from a diesel engine for cars. It wasn’t until after WWII that Diesel’s engine would become the engine of choice for the American railroad industry and started to appear in commercial trucks and busses.
At the time of Diesel’s death in 1913, he was on his way to meet with representatives of the British Navy for a discussion about installing Diesel engines on their submarines. After his death, conspiracy theories began to fly almost immediately. One of the most intriguing was that Diesel was murdered by agents from Germany. This is because Diesel’s death took place a year before the outbreak of the World War One. With the tension between Britain and Germany heating up, some believe that Diesel was killed to stop his expertise from falling into British hands.