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How the Diesel Engine Came to Be

Posted by Scott Goldfarb on

Diesel engines seem to power the world. They can be found in nearly every type of machinery. But how did diesel engines get their start?

In the 1870s, a young Rudolf Diesel sat in a lecture given by Carl von Linde on thermodynamics. Delivered at the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich, that lecture would change the world as we know it. In this lecture, Diesel learned that it was conceivable that one could make an internal combustion engine that would turn all of its heat into useful work. To put that into perspective, at the time, steam engines, as well as early versions of internal combustion engines, could convert only about 10% of heat into work.

Over the next years, Diesel set out to prove the theory he heard in the lecture correct. He hypothesized that the higher the amount of compression the engine could achieve, the higher the efficiency and power it would produce. He worked on designing an engine that, instead of relying on an electric spark to ignite the fuel, relied on the heat produced by the air being compressed.

By 1893 he had completed a design for an efficient thermal engine in his free time. He received a patent for this design. His first engine was just over 25% efficient, which is more than double the efficiency of the other engines of its time. Today, top diesel engines are about 50% efficient.

Why Diesel?

Diesel engines have some major advantages over their gas or petrol counterparts. Here are a few:

  • Diesel engines are more economical to run. They may be more of an initial investment, but they pay off over time because they use less fuel and use fuel more efficiently (so they give much better gas mileage than gasoline-powered engines).
  • Diesel engines can use diesel fuel, a heavier fuel named after Diesel and his engine that is less expensive and gives off fewer fumes. Because of this, it’s also less likely to cause an explosion or fire.
  • Diesel engines themselves are smaller and lighter than traditional petrol engines.
  • Diesel engines have lower maintenance. The simplicity of the design reduces the number of potential failures in the engine, making it easier to maintain. The time between maintenance services is also longer in diesel engines than in other engines. Because they don’t have spark plugs or distributors they never need ignition tune-ups.
  • Diesel engines have greater torque. Torque is what gives the diesel engine the power to pull loads and accelerate (which is why it’s the best choice for semis and other large trucks).

From Rocky Rollout to Industrial Gamechanger

Diesel’s first engines were met with varying success. He spent a few years testing different prototypes and working through kinks that came up. The reliability of these initial engines varied (with many people who purchased earlier versions coming back for refunds), but Diesel learned from his mistakes and kept working to improve the engine. By the late 1890s, the engine entered the commercial scene. By 1898, Diesel had become a millionaire (although his fortune was gone by the time of his death).

Initially, Diesel’s goal was to create an engine that would enable independent workers (craftsmen and artisans) to compete with large industries. But industrialists took advantage of his design as much as small businesses did. By 1903, two diesel-powered ships (for river and canal operations) were launched. Diesel engines were put into submarines for France in 1904. As Diesel’s patents began to expire, diesel engines began making their way into more machines.

Diesel passed away in 1913 under mysterious circumstances. His death holds multiple conspiracy theories that all center on his invention and his competition. Soon after his death, his engine started to gain even larger traction commercially. In the 1920s the first diesel-powered commercial vehicles were introduced. In the 1930s the first diesel-powered trains and passenger cars were created. Before the 1940s even rolled around, the sea trade was fueled a quarter of the way by diesel engines.

Today diesel engines are used in trains, trucks, construction equipment, automobiles, boats, and numerous industrial applications. They are used in mining, hospitals, telecommunications, agricultural machinery, construction, underground, forestry, marine vehicles, generators, and more. The world has changed in drastic ways because of that thermodynamics lecture that inspired a young Rudolf Diesel in the audience.

As a leading diesel parts supplier, Goldfarb & Associates, Inc. buys and sells new, used, and rebuilt diesel engine components. Check out our inventory of turbochargers, camshafts, diesel fuel injection pump, and more online, or come visit us for all your diesel engine needs.


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