Today, we meet Rudolf Diesel. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
No other engine inventor's
name is as closely tied to his engine as Rudolph
Diesel's is. But Diesel worked hard to make it that
way. Historian Linwood Bryant tells us that Diesel
saw himself as a scientific genius and the James
Watt of the late 19th century. He was vain,
oversensitive, and not a little paranoid. He didn't
win the hearts of other engine makers.
In 1912, 20 years after the engine was conceived,
four books were written about its development.
Diesel wrote one. The other three were by people
who were out to minimize his claims.
The seeds of the dispute, Bryant argues, were sown
in Diesel's view of invention -- the usual view
that a device is first invented, then developed,
and finally improved. Diesel left very clear
records of what he actually did. There's no doubt
that between 1890 and '93 he invented the engine
using his knowledge of thermodynamics. The idea of
burning fuel slowly, and at higher pressures, was
There's also no doubt that he worked from 1893 to
'97 at the Augsburg Machine-Works to develop a
working engine. During this time Diesel faced
problem after problem. To solve them he had to do a
lot more theoretical work and more invention. In
Diesel's view, he was still inventing the engine.
People outside the process saw all this as
development -- the dirty work that anyone has to go
through to make a good idea into workable hardware.
After 1897 Diesel figured he was done with his
invention, and he turned to promoting it. But the
engine was woefully unready for the market. Eleven
more years of improvement and innovation were
needed. Meanwhile, Diesel worked himself into a
nervous breakdown promoting the not-yet-ready
Now the 1912 controversy becomes clearer. Diesel
saw his own development as a continuation of the
inventive process -- and it most surely was that.
But what went on from 1897 to 1908 -- the
innovation that made the engine commercially
feasible -- that he viewed as no more than simple
clean-up work by lesser minds. He irritated other
engine designers by sneering at their work. He
failed to see that what made his engine viable in
the marketplace was a lot of truly inventive
thinking by a lot of good engineers.
Diesel was badly troubled by the criticisms. And in
1913 he vanished from a boat to England. His body
was found ten days later. His death brought out all
kinds of lurid stories about plots to sell secrets
to the British. But it's pretty clear that he only
committed suicide. All Diesel's concern over public
opinion was such an unhappy thing! A person with
that kind of talent should've known how to sit back
and enjoy it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bryant, L., The Development of the Diesel Engine.
Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No. 3,
October 1976, pp. 432-446.
Chalkley, A. P., Diesel Engines for Land and
Marine Work (with an introductory chapter by
the late Dr. Rudolf Diesel). New York: D. Van
Nostrand Company, 1917.
This episode has been greatly revised and extended
as Episode 1435
From Diesel Engines for
Land and Marine Work, 1917
A Single-Cylinder 80 HP Diesel Engine
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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