Tradition  |  Technology 

One invention still shapes our world

Rudolf Diesel passed a century ago – but his idea is still living. The history of the diesel engine.

Letters patent
©Vuk Latinovic

The history of the diesel engine starts in the late 19th century: Propelled by his vision of an “ideal heat-driven machine”, the young engineer Rudolf Diesel spent day and night back then at his drawing board. Pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion, he tirelessly sketched his drawings, pondered calculations, and optimized an entirely new engine design until he finally found the perfect solution. Sponsoring the inventor was the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg, the predecessor to today’s MAN, which had recognized the potential of Diesel’s idea early on. The diesel engine has been a success ever since.

Follow the steps of Rudolf Diesel:

Rudolf Diesel 1912

It was the night of September 29, 1913: Rudolf Diesel, the celebrated, if not controversial, inventor of the diesel engine had vanished without a trace from aboard the German post steamer Dresden. Days later, his body was found floating in the North Sea. The life of this 55-year-old ingenious inventor had come to a tragic end. Two decades earlier, his rise had started…

drawing diesel engine

In 1893, Rudolf Diesel set forth his idea of a “new and rational thermal engine” in a study, which he patented that same year. Initially Diesel had trouble convincing the world of his genius idea. Diesel strove to compress, and thus heat, air in a cylinder to such a degree that just a small quantity of fuel would be required to generate an explosion. But he became a target of public criticism…

Rudolf Diesel, Heinrich von Buz, Prof. Moritz Schroeter

Only Heinrich von Buz (center), the managing director of Maschinenfabrik Augsburg, had confidence in Rudolf Diesel (left) and his idea and gave him a chance. Still, this enterprise demanded much patience of Buz, the engineers, and Diesel himself. New challenges kept emerging, and it took a total of six test series to get them under control. The breakthrough finally came in 1897: The diesel engine ignited and was officially approved by Professor Moritz Schröter (right) of the Technical College Munich…

First diesel engine

The first diesel engine boasted about 20 horsepower and an efficiency factor of 26 percent – an extraordinary accomplishment at the time. Shortly afterward, this first functional diesel engine was presented to trade experts. In 1898, Maschinenfabrik Augsburg and Maschinenbau-Actien-Gesellschaft Nürnberg merged, and in the same year the first diesel engine sold was installed in a matchstick factory in Kempten. Rudolf Diesel and his team of engineers kept on polishing the engines…

First diesel power station in Kiev in 1904

After the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, the diesel engine started to conquer the world. In 1905, the first diesel power station was commissioned in Kiev. But the engines would not only be used for stationary purposes…

MS Selandia

In 1912, the first diesel-powered ocean steamer, the M/S Selandia, took the water in Copenhagen. This rapid progress proved a superhuman effort for the inventor, however. Diesel’s workload rose, as did the pressure to succeed, and both had a negative impact on his health: he suffered from migraines, gout, insomnia, and a stubborn nervous condition.

diesel engine 1923

When Rudolf Diesel died in 1913, diesel engines with boasting a total horsepower of around 1.7 million were already in operation or being built – with the lion’s share of these projects being handled by MAN. Commercial vehicles, ships, power plants would all be future fields of application to be conquered by MAN through the development of ever more powerful and efficient diesel engines…

Modern diesel engine Euro 6 for trucks

Rudolf Diesel’s self-igniting idea, however, is still powering our world today. Be it in trucks or ships, buses, passenger cars, agricultural machinery, or rail cars: nowadays, diesel engines move more than 90 percent of all transported goods worldwide, and make people mobile on every continent. At the same time, they generate energy in power plants around the globe.

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