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Culture

Diesel Engine Still Going Strong 150 Years After Inventor's Birth

Ships, cars, motorcycles, trucks -- diesel engines are found everywhere. Its inventor, who died a mysterious premature death in the British Canal, would have turned 150 on March 18.

Rudolf Diesel

The mystery surrounding Rudolf Diesel's death remains unresolved

Diesel has become a synonym for efficiency and environmental friendliness when it comes to making things go. Over a century after its initial invention, the diesel engine is still being developed, to be used in airplanes and run on biofuels, for example.

The man traditionally accredited with its invention, Rudolf Diesel, was born on March 18, 1858, in Paris to a German bookbinder and his wife. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, the family fled to London. Suffering from the economic ramifications of the war, they couldn't afford to support young Rudolf and sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in Augsburg.

It was there in southern Germany, where he attended the Royal County Trade School and later went on to graduate from the Polytechnic University in Munich with highest academic honors, that he developed his passion for engineering and made early plans for a new motor.

Filling up at the gas station

Diesel creates higher emissions than gas, but you need less of it to go the same distance

In 1893, he published a book concretely outlining his engine design and was commissioned by the Engine Factory Augsburg Nuremberg -- the forerunner of today's MAN Group -- to build a prototype.

More power for less fuel

Completed in 1897, the prototype produced 14 kilowatts of power, much more than other motors of the time. It also ran on significantly less fuel.

Diesel's engine, which is on display today in the German Museum in Munich, functioned by heating compressed air with pistons until it was hot enough to ignited the injected fuel. While typical diesel fuel is an oil by-product derived from the petroleum refinement process, Diesel had made plans to eventually run his engine on vegetable oils.

Though he wasn't able to see the development through, Diesel's plan for an oil-less motor earned him enemies in the oil sector.

The animosities, in part, fuelled the mystery surrounding his death.

Corpse found in English Channel

On Sept. 29, 1913, Diesel was traveling by boat across the English Channel to attend a conference in London. He retired to his cabin in the evening and was never seen alive again. The engineer's body was discovered in the water some days later.

Rapeseed field

Vegetable oil -- Diesel had futuristic ideas about fuel

Though the official version was that Diesel committed suicide by jumping overboard, rumors circulated that he had been murdered -- possibly commissioned either by oil bigwigs or by the German Empire.

At the time of Diesel's death in 1913, premonitions of World War I were rumbling through Europe and the German Empire likely wasn’t happy that Diesel was looking to sell his motor patent to France and England. Emperor Wilhelm II had allegedly wanted exclusive rights to diesel warship motors.

While the exact cause of Diesel's death will remain a mystery, his name is liable to be common jargon for a while to come -- increasingly in connection with the biofuels the inventor himself had aimed for.

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