Early History of the Diesel Engine

Hannu Jääskeläinen

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Abstract: In the 1890s, Rudolf Diesel invented an efficient, compression ignition, internal combustion engine that bears his name. Early diesel engines were large and operated at low speeds due to the limitations of their compressed air-assisted fuel injection systems. In its early years, the diesel engine was competing with another heavy fuel oil engine concept—the hot-bulb engine invented by Akroyd-Stuart. High-speed diesel engines were introduced in the 1920s for commercial vehicle applications and in the 1930s for passenger cars.

Rudolf Diesel’s Invention

Rudolf Diesel, who is best known for the invention of the engine that bears his name, was born in Paris, France in 1858. His invention came while the steam engine was the predominant power source for large industries.

Figure 1. Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913)

In 1885, Diesel set up his first shop in Paris to begin development of a compression ignition engine. The process would last 13 years. In the 1890s, he received a number of patents for his invention of an efficient, slow burning, compression ignition, internal combustion engine [2856][2857][2858][2859]. From 1893 to 1897, Diesel further developed his ideas at Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg AG (later Maschinenfabrik-Augsburg-Nürnberg or MAN). In addition to MAN, Sulzer Brothers of Switzerland took an early interest in Diesel’s work, buying certain rights to Diesel’s invention in 1893.

At MAN in Augsburg, prototype testing began with a 150 mm bore/400 mm stroke design on August 10, 1893. While the first engine test was unsuccessful, a series of improvements and subsequent tests led to a successful test on February 17, 1897 when Diesel demonstrated an efficiency of 26.2% with the engine, Figure 2, under load—a significant achievement given that the then popular steam engine had an efficiency of about 10%. The first Sulzer-built diesel engine was started in June 1898 [388][2860]. Additional details of Diesel’s early testing can be found in the literature [2864][2265].

Figure 2. Diesel’s third test engine used in the successful 1897 acceptance test

1 cylinder, four-stroke, water-cooled, air injection of fuel
Output: 14.7 kW (20 hp)
Fuel consumption: 317 g/kWh (238 g/hp-hr)
Efficiency: 26.2%
Number of revolutions: 172 min-1
Displacement volume: 19.6 L
Bore: 250 mm
Stroke: 400 mm

Development of Diesel’s invention needed more time and work to become a commercial success. Many engineers and developers joined in the work to improve the market viability of the idea created by Rudolf Diesel. He, on the other hand, became somewhat threatened by this process and was not always able to find common language with other engine designers developing his invention. Diesel’s attempts of market promotion of the not-yet-ready engine eventually led into a nervous breakdown. In 1913, deeply troubled by criticisms of his role in developing the engine, he mysteriously vanished from a ship on a voyage to England, presumably committing suicide [389]. After Diesel’s patents started to expire, a number of other companies took his invention and developed it further.