- Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine.

Diesel, what's in a name?

From invention to modern day.

2w ago

In life, it is said that timing is everything. In this case, timing plays a part, but a lot of what happens can be attributed to the individual in this article, Rudolph Diesel. On the heels of the "birth" of the Petrochemical Industry in the 1850s, Rudolph Diesel was born in Paris, France in 1858. With the discovery of crude oil in 1859 in Pennsylvania USA, it would seem that Rudolph was born, right on time.

That said, we take many things in today's world for granted, especially when you realize that they were invented 100+ years ago. With little more than pencils and paper, and a large amount of grit, determination, and a large dose of genius. It must be noted that there are a few discussions on who actually gets credit for being the first to "distill" kerosine, the precursor to the refining of crude oil. Without going down a rabbit hole on this one, the three men listed below were the catalysts for Rudolph's accomplishments and deserve their honorary mentions. They are as follows: Filip Neriusz Walter, Abraham Pineo Gesner, and Ignacy Łukasiewicz.

Filip Neriusz Walter

Filip Neriusz Walter (1810 –1847)

Filip Neriusz Walter (1810 –1847)

The Polish chemist, Filip Neriusz Walter (1810 –1847), born in Kraków, Poland, has been credited for the discovery of a rock oil distillation method and recognition of its properties was achieved as early as 1837. Creating products by distilling plant resins, rock oil, waxes and plant oils, is what he is best know for. There were also notable discoveries, as he isolated and studied 24 new chemical compounds, including toluene, biphenyl, nitrotoluene, cedrene, potassium hydroxide dihydrate, chromyl chloride, cumene, benzyl chloride, benzyl bromide, and menthene.

Abraham Pineo Gesner

Abraham Pineo Gesner (1797–1864)

Abraham Pineo Gesner (1797–1864)

The Canadian physician and geologist from Nova Scotia, Abraham Pineo Gesner (1797–1864), was the man who the Canadians regard as being the first to distill kerosene. He developed a method to distill kerosene from coal and on June 27, 1854, Gesner obtained U.S patents 11,203, 11,204, and 11,205 for "Improvement in kerosene burning fluids.” He transferred the patent rights to the North American Kerosene Company. The patents describe three distinct types of kerosene, which Gesner labeled kerosenes A, B, and C. These classifications are based on the volatility of each type of Kerosine, with type A being the most volatile and known as Gasoline today.

Ignacy Łukasiewicz

Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1822 - 1882)

Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1822 - 1882)

Ignacy Łukasiewicz started his career as a Chemist, and he was devoted primarily to the pharmaceutical industry. However, in 1853, the chemical distillation of kerosene from crude oil (seep oil) was achieved by Jan Zech and himself, and their process was given a patent, on 2nd December 1853. Łukasiewicz is credited for finding a use for kerosene, after his invention of the modern kerosene lamp circa 1853. The installation of the first modern street lamp took place in the Gorlice's Zawodzie district of Poland and then found its way throughout Europe shortly thereafter. In 1856, in Ulaszowice, Poland, Ignacy opened an "oil distillery" which was the world's first industrial oil refinery. He found that the demand for kerosene was low, primarily because of the cost, due to early adoption, therefore the plant produced mostly artificial asphalt, machine oil, and lubricants. Sadly, the plant burned to the ground a few years later.

Rudolph's Entry.

Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (1858 - 1913)

Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (1858 - 1913)

In the early days, only a fraction of the crude could be refined into kerosene, which meant that there were large amounts of unused petroleum by-products. More about that shortly.


Rudolph was born in Paris France on March 18, 1858. His family was deported to England in 1870 after the outbreak of the Franco-German War. He had aspirations for engineering from a young age and when trade and industrial school concluded, Rudolph went to Germany to attend Munich Technical University (Polytechnic Institute). In 1880, after finishing his studies, he was awarded the best grade ever given for an examination since the founding of the University. During the engineering sciences classes, he showed particular interest in the thermodynamics lectures of Carl von Linde.

Linde had an impact and Diesel went to work at the Gesellschaft für Linde's Eismaschinen which was Linde’s Company in Paris, which manufactured refrigerating machines. In 1875, Carl von Linde invents an ammonia compression machine that was used to manufacture ice. In 1881, Rudolph completed his year-long apprenticeship and started work in the ice factory as an engineer. Within that same year, Diesel obtained the first patent for manufacturing transparent ice.


Rudolph was also interested in developing a more efficient and cost-effective engine that would help or assist smaller businesses and entrepreneurs. Most machines around that time were steam-powered and the equipment was not only large but very expensive, making it difficult for small businesses to compete with the larger companies that had the financial resources to afford and the space to accommodate those types of machines.

With the discovery of crude oil and the fact that much of it was leftover or unused after refining into Kerosine, the petroleum by-products seemed to hold promise. He realized through his understanding of thermodynamics, that these by-products may be the way to solve the problems of the time and he got to work. First with the idea of using coal as a fuel source, but quickly determined that the liquid fuel was the better way to achieve what he wanted.

Things started to evolve rapidly over the next few years and in 1892 he patented his concept, a “new, rational heat engine”; patent DRP 67 207 “on a principle of operation and construction for internal combustion engines” which was attained in February of 1893. In November of the same year, after improving his first design, by making the necessary modifications, he obtained a second patent numbered DRP 82 168. Some of his patents are shown below.


Patent 608 845

Patent 608 845

Patent Number 67 207

Patent Number 67 207

Patent Number 542 846

Patent Number 542 846

Rudolph Diesel's Engine

Rudolph was able to develop the first prototype engine which was operational in a few months, but it took another four years to get an actual working engine model for production. He was able to do this with assistance from Maschinenfabrik Augsburg, and Friedrich Krupp AG, which is now recognized as MAN Diesel and ThyssenKrupp respectively. In Augsburg, Germany, on August 10, 1893, Rudolf Diesel's prime model, ran on its own power for the first time. It was a massive 10-foot single cylinder, with a large flywheel located at the base of the machine.

A mechanical drawing of Rudolph Diesel's Engine.

Rudolph Diesel's Engine. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Rudolph Diesel's Engine. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

So what is a Diesel engine and how does it work?

Simply put, a gasoline engine uses a spark-ignition system to ignite a compressed mixture of air and fuel in the combustion chamber, causing an internal explosion forcing the piston down (A compression stroke). A diesel engine compresses the intake air during the combustion process then injects diesel fuel into the chamber causing the ignition, without a spark. Therefore, a gas engine uses a spark and diesel uses high pressure to generate the heat required.

Ironically enough, he first experimented with spark plugs and thought that the spontaneous inflammation of the fuel was not vital. It may seem simple now, but Rudolph struggled initially, as he had issues with reliability. Most of the problems originating in the air compressor and the strainer-type atomizer used for fuel injection, which was susceptible to mechanical trouble. As expected, he redesigned and developed a new atomizer and was able to make the compression a two-step process. He was able to show, through all of the trials and difficulties that the (Diesel) internal combustion engine had future potential.

Modern-day diesel engines follow the same basic principles of Diesel's engine, having evolved into technically sophisticated systems. Some people may be familiar with common rail injection, where the injection pressures can go up to 2000 bar. There are also exhaust-gas turbocharging and emission control systems. Most recently, the combination of the internal combustion engine and the electric drive in the hybrid vehicle show that the diesel engine is a powerful, economical, and clean vehicle to drive. It is to be seen if it holds long-term potential, as the trend seems to be heading towards all EV's in the future.


The end of his life, one could argue was a bit more colorful, as speculation swirled for some time, as to how he met his end on the evening of 29th September 1913. He was onboard a steamer, for a meeting of the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing company in London, England. He ate dinner and made his way to his cabin at about 10 p.m., and was never seen alive again. Ten days later, the body of a man was found floating in the Eastern Scheldt, (a former estuary in the province of Zeeland, Netherlands).

The body was found by the crew of the Dutch pilot boat Coertsen but was decomposed and unrecognizable. Personal items such as a pill case, wallet, I.D. card, pocketknife, and an eyeglass case were removed from the clothing of the dead man. The body was not kept and was returned to the sea. Rudolf's son, Eugen Diesel, identified the items as belonging to his father on 13th October 1913.

Rumors circulated that he committed suicide and drowned in the English Channel, due to debts and ill health. Some said he was assisted in falling overboard. World War I was afoot and his refusal to grant exclusive rights to the German forces and the possibility that he was engaged with the British Royal Navy to use the Diesel engine to power their submarines. It was also speculated that because he was a proponent of using vegetable fuels as a fuel source and the petrochemical and coal industries had a lot to lose if that became a reality. Today, the use of Bio-Fuels derived from vegetable oils is a reality and is actively be used as a liquid fuel source. The real reason for his demise, we may never know, as it was buried at sea with him.


Whatever the reason, what we do know is that Rudolph Diesel's engines can be found in numerous types of machinery, standby and continuous power generators, cars, trucks, vans, trains, and marine vessels to name a few. That said, I think that if he had lived long enough to see how successful his invention was/is, that he would not only be amazed, but incredibly proud of his accomplishments.

Rudolph Diesel was able to imagine, design, develop and perfect his early engine, which also runs on the fuel that bears his name. He created a legacy based on a desire to take what was learned from those before him and apply it to what he knew would work. Through education, hard work, and tenacity, he experimented, developed, and even with the ups and downs, he was able to create the second most recognized engine in the world today. From 1893 to 2021, his engines have been operating in one industry or another for around one hundred and twenty-eight years.

Major auto, truck, and equipment manufacturers such as Jinan, John Deere, Kahlenberg, Kelvin, Kilo-Pak, Kingfisher, Kirloskar, Kohler, Kolomna, Komatsu, Kubota, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Launtop, Lehman, Leyland, Liebherr, Lille Crepelle, Lister, Lister-Petter, Lomatec, Lombardini, Lovol, Lugger, Mack, MaK, MAN, MAN B&W, Manises, MarineDiesel USA, MAZDA, Mercedes all make and/or use a version of Rudolph Diesel's engine.

In memory of

In the mid-1950s, the founder of the Japanese diesel engine manufacturer Yanmar enquired and learned that there was neither a memorial or a tomb to Rudolph Diesel. So in 1957, on the 100th anniversary of Rudolph's birth, and the 60th anniversary of the development of the engine, Yamaoka commemorated the Rudolf Diesel Memorial Garden in Wittelsbacher Park in Bavaria, where Rudolph spent his early years.








Join In

Comments (3)

  • Great piece, love my diesel truck.

      13 days ago
    • My business deals with diesel fuel and I have a great understanding about what we do. What I did not realize was the history behind it. As I researched, I realized that there was so much that I did not know, especially as it relates to the...

      Read more
        13 days ago
  • I drive a diesel, cracking it is.

      14 days ago