Rudolf Diesel, Inventor of the Diesel Engine

French-born German engineer and inventor Rudolf Diesel (1858 - 1913). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The engine that bears his name set off a new chapter in the industrial revolution, but Rudolf Diesel initially thought his invention would help small businesses and artisans, not industrialists. 

Early Life

Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris in 1858. His parents were Bavarian immigrants, and the family was deported to England at the outbreak of the Franco-German war. Eventually, Rudolf Diesel went to Germany to study at Munich Polytechnic, where he studied engineering. After graduation he was employed as a refrigerator engineer in Paris from 1880. 

His true love lay in engine design, however, and over the next few years he began exploring a number of ideas. One concerned finding a way to help small businesses compete with big industries, which had the money to harness the power of steam engines. Another was how to use the laws of thermodynamics to create a more efficient engine. In his mind, building a better engine would help the little guy. 

The Diesel Engine

Rudolf Diesel designed many heat engines, including a solar-powered air engine. In 1893, he published a paper describing an engine with combustion within a cylinder, the internal combustion engine. In Augsburg, Germany on August 10, 1893, Rudolf Diesel's prime model, a single 10-foot iron cylinder with a flywheel at its base, ran on its own power for the first time. That same year he published a paper describing the internal combustion engine to the world. In 1894, he filed for a patent for his new invention, dubbed the diesel engine. Diesel was almost killed by his engine when it exploded.

Diesel spent two more years making improvements and in 1896 demonstrated another model with the theoretical efficiency of 75 percent, in contrast to the ten percent efficiency of the steam engine
In 1898, Rudolf Diesel was granted patent #608,845 for an "internal combustion engine." The diesel engines of today are refined and improved versions of Rudolf Diesel's original concept. They are often used in submarines, ships, locomotives, and large trucks and in electric generating plants.

Rudolf Diesel's inventions have three points in common: They relate to heat transference by natural physical processes or laws; they involve markedly creative mechanical design; and they were initially motivated by the inventor's concept of sociological needs—by finding a way to enable independent craftsmen and artisans to compete with large industry.

That last goal didn’t exactly pan out as Diesel expected. His invention could be used by small businesses, but it was embraced eagerly by the industrialists, as well. His engines were used to power pipelines, electric and water plants, automobiles and trucks, and marine craft, and soon after were used in mines, oil fields, factories, and transoceanic shipping. Diesel became a millionaire by the end of the 20th century.

In 1913, Rudolf Diesel disappeared en route to London while on an ocean steamer.  He is assumed to have drowned in the English Channel.