Word Origins: Rudolph Diesel and the Diesel Engine

About Rudolph Diesel, history and biography of the man who gave the word diesel engine its origin.

DIESEL engine (de'zel,-sel) n. An internal-combustion engine that uses the heat of highly compressed air to ignite a spray of fuel introduced after the start of the compression stroke. Also called "diesel motor," "diesel."

Rudolph Diesel was the son of a German couple who lived in Paris until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 forced them to fleet to England. Hardly had they arrived when Rudolph's uncle in Augsburg offered to look after the boy until the war was over. At 12, Rudolph was therefore put on a train with his uncle's address on a card tied around his neck and sent via Harwich back to the Continent. Wartime delays extended the trip to 8 lonely days.

Diesel remembered this experience well when, years later, he determined that all transportation would be improved if the not-very-efficient steam engine, with its clumsy furnace, boiler, and chimney, could be replaced by something considerably more compact. The internal combustion engine existed but in an imperfect state. Diesel was working in an ice-machine factory at the time, and among his patents for the making of clear ice and the making of ice directly in a bottle ready for sale were patents for improvements on the internal combustion engine, including devices to increase compression and eliminate the ignition spark. Diesel constructed his 1st engine along these lines himself, but when he tried to start it, part of it promptly exploded and almost killed him. "The birth of an idea is the happy moment in which everything appears possible and reality has not yet entered into the problem," he noted dryly in his diary.

The experiment had proved, however, that a compression-ignition engine would work; the problem was to perfect it and to determine what fuel it would work best on. Everything from alcohol to peanut oil was tried, and experiments continued for years before diesel fuel, an inexpensive, semirefined crude oil, was arrived at. As improvements were made, it became clear that the diesel engine had greater thermal efficiency and offered greater fuel economy than any other existing engine. When in 1900 Diesel met Count von Zeppelin, the 2 men discussed the possibility of powering zeppelins with diesels. This eventually came to pass, but not until long after both inventors were dead. Oceangoing vessels started using diesels right away, however; Nansen's ship, the Fram, was diesel-powered when it made its Antarctica expedition in 1911.

His invention made Diesel rich and famous, and he traveled extensively. A few months before the outbreak of W. W. I, he was invited to England to attend an important congress. On the evening of September 29, 1913, he and 2 colleagues boarded the cross-channel steamer Dresden, dined together, and strolled up and down the deck before going to their separate cabins for the night. When the Dresden docked at Harwich the next morning, Diesel did not join his 2 friends on deck, nor did he answer their knock. When his stateroom was opened, they found his bed had not been slept in. The other passengers had not seen him; the crew found only his hat and overcoat by the after-rail. Ten days later, the crew of another boat fished a corpse out of the water. The pockets contained a coin purse, a medicine container, and a spectacles case, all of which Diesel's son later identified as having belonged to his father. But in accordance with prevailing custom of "finds at sea," the corpse was returned to the waves and never again recovered.

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