Biography of Nicolaus Otto and the Modern Engine

The Otto Cycle
A four-wheeled Otto cycle, invented by the German scientist Nikolaus August Otto. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

One of the most important landmarks in engine design comes from Nicolaus Otto who in 1876 invented an effective gas motor engine—the first practical alternative to the steam engine. Otto built the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine called the "Otto Cycle Engine," and when he completed his engine, he built it into a motorcycle.

Born: June 14, 1832
Died: January 26, 1891

Otto's Early Days

Nicolaus Otto was born the youngest of six children in Holzhausen, Germany. His father died in 1832 and he began school in 1838. After six years of good performance, he moved to the high school in Langenschwalbach until 1848. He did not complete his studies but was cited for good performance.

Otto's main interest in school had been in science and technology but, nevertheless, he graduated after three years as a business apprentice in a small merchandise company. After completing his apprenticeship he moved to Frankfurt where he worked for Philipp Jakob Lindheimer as a salesman, selling tea, coffee, and sugar. He soon developed an interest in the new technologies of the day and began experimenting with building four-stroke engines (inspired by Lenoir's two-stroke gas-driven internal combustion engine).

In late autumn of 1860, Otto and his brother learned of a novel gas engine that Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir had built in Paris. The brothers built a copy of the Lenoir engine and applied for a patent in January 1861 for a liquid-fueled engine based on the Lenoir (Gas) engine with the Prussian Ministry of Commerce but it was rejected. The engine ran just a few minutes before breaking. Otto's brother gave up on the concept resulting in Otto looking for help elsewhere.

After meeting Eugen Langen, a technician, and owner of a sugar factory, Otto quit his job, and in 1864, the duo started the world's first engine manufacturing company N.A. Otto & Cie (now DEUTZ AG, Köln). In 1867, the pair were awarded a Gold Medal at the Paris World Exhibition for their atmospheric gas engine built a year earlier.

Four-Stroke Engine

In May 1876, Nicolaus Otto built the first practical four-stroke piston cycle internal combustion engine. He continued to develop his four-stroke engine after 1876 and he considered his work finished after his invention of the first magneto ignition system for low voltage ignition in 1884. Otto's patent was overturned in 1886 in favor of the patent granted to Alphonse Beau de Roaches for his four-stroke engine. However, Otto built a working engine while Roaches' design stayed on paper. On October 23, 1877, another patent for a gas motor engine was issued to Nicolaus Otto, and Francis and William Crossley.

In all, Otto built the following engines:

  • 1861 A copy of Lenoir's atmospheric engine
  • 1862 A four-cycle compressed charge engine (prior to Rochas's patent) which failed as it broke almost immediately
  • 1864 The first successful atmospheric engine
  • 1876 The four-stroke compressed charge engine which is acknowledged as the "Otto" cycle engine. The term Otto cycle is applied to all compressed charge, four cycle engines.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Nicolaus Otto and the Modern Engine." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Biography of Nicolaus Otto and the Modern Engine. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Nicolaus Otto and the Modern Engine." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).