Rudolf Diesel was born in Paris in 1858. His parents were Bavarian immigrants. Rudolf Diesel was educated at Munich Polytechnic. After graduation he was employed as a refrigerator engineer. Though best known for his invention of the pressure-ignited heat engine that bears his name, Rudolf Diesel was also a well-respected thermal engineer and a social theorist.
Rudolf Diesel originally conceived the diesel engine to enable independent craftsmen and artisans to compete with large industry. Rudolf Diesel designed many heat engines, including a solar-powered air engine. On February 27, 1892, 20 years after the first gasoline engine was built in 1863 by a Frenchman named Lenior, Diesel filed for a patent at the Imperial Patent Office in Germany. Within a year, he was granted Patent No. 67207 for a "Working Method and Design for Combustion Engines . . .a new efficient, thermal engine." In 1893, he published a paper describing an engine with combustion within a cylinder, the internal combustion compression engine.
Baron von Krupp and Machinenfabrik Augsburg Nurnberg Company in Germany backed Rudolf Diesel financially as well as providing engineers to work with him on the development of an engine that would burn coal dust, because there were mountains of useless coal dust piled up in the Ruhr valley. The first experimental engine was built in 1893 and used high-pressure air to blast the coal dust into the combustion chamber. This engine exploded almost killing Diesel and further developments of using coal dust as a fuel failed, however, his engine was the first to prove that fuel could be ignited without a spark. Further development were devoted to the use of vegetable oils as the fuel
At Augsburg, on August 10, 1893, Rudolf Diesel's prime model, a single 10-foot iron cylinder with a flywheel at its base, ran on its own power for the first time with 26% efficiency, remarkably more than double the efficiency of the steam engines and in 1894, he filed for a patent for his new invention. The original oil burning engines used very crude mechanical injection equipment so Rudolf Diesel again began using air blast to provide atomization of the fuel as well as turbulence of the mixture. This was very successful and utilized in Rudolf Diesel's third engine built in 1895. This engine was very similar to engines being used today. It was a four-stroke cycle with 450psi compression. Rudolf Diesel spent another year making improvements and in 1896 demonstrated another model with the theoretical efficiency of 75 percent; Diesel designed his engine in response to the heavy resource consumption and inefficiency of the steam engine, which only produced 12% efficiency.
He operated his first successful engine in 1897. In 1898, Rudolf Diesel was granted patent #608845 for an "internal combustion engine" later known as the Diesel engine. Diesel demonstrated his engine at the Exhibition Fair in Paris, France in 1898. This engine stood as an example of Diesel's vision of an engine fueled by vegetable oil. In 1912 he stated: "The diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it" and that "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time." Henry Ford shared a similar vision to that of Diesel and believed plant-based fuels to be the future of transportation. Ford planned to use ethanol as the primary fuel for his Model T, however, the less expensive gasoline emerged as the dominant fuel.
The early diesel engines were not small enough or light enough for anything but stationary use due to the size of the fuel injection pump. They were produced primarily for industrial and shipping in the early 1900's. Ships and submarines benefited greatly from the efficiency of this new engine, which was slowly beginning to gain popularity. America was developing a diesel industry. It had always been part of Diesel's vision that America would use of his engines. Size, need, and the access to biomass for fuel were important and already a part of the American economy. Adolphus Busch acquired the rights to the American production of the diesel engine. Busch-Zulger Brothers Diesel Engine Company built the first diesel engine in America in 1898. But, not much was done with development and design of the engine in America until after World War I.
With WWI rapidly approaching Europe became divided, Diesels' political support was directed towards France and Britain. The French Navy was already powered by the Diesel engine and he was in the process of making arrangements to power the English naval fleet. Diesel did not agree with the politics of Imperial Germany and was reluctant to see his engine used by their Naval fleet giving the allies a great advantage in the upcoming war.
On 29 September 1913, Rudolf Diesel shipped on the "SS Dresden", a cross-channel ferry, for a short trip to attend the opening of a new Carels factory in Ipswich. (Carels was a Belgian Diesel licensee.) However, Diesel never arrived in England and his body was found a couple of days later by a coast guard boat. It has been alleged that he was going to attend a meeting with representatives of the Royal Navy. It has been alleged that he was murdered by German agents opening the way for the German submarine fleet to be powered by his engine. Others believed that the French might have been responsible. Their submarines were already powered by diesel engines. They may have been trying to keep the engines out of both the British and German hands. Still others believe he was murdered by agents of the burgeoning petroleum industry whose business would have been adversely affected by the widespread use of vegetable oil powered engines. Diesel's family, however, believes that he was thrown off the ship so that his ideas could be stolen.
Clessie L Cummins, a mechanic-inventor purchased manufacturing rights to the diesel engine from the Dutch licensor Hvid in 1919 with the investment William Glanton Irwin, He immediately began working on the problems, which had been inherent in the design since its inception - those of size, weight, and instability created by the fuel system. Cummins soon developed a single disk system that measured the fuel injected. Like the other early engines, Cummins' products were stationary engines and his main market was the marine industry.
The 20's brought a new injection pump developments, predominantly by Bosch, allowing the metering of fuel as it entered the engine without the need of pressurized air and its accompanying tank. The engine was now small enough to be utilized in vehicles. 1923-1924 Daimler-Benz. Produced the first Diesel powered trucks and showed them at the Berlin Motor Fair. By this time Diesel engine design was being driven by large investors many of them "oil Tycoons" and the original design was altered to allow the combustion of fossil fuel.
In 1925 Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was "the fuel of the future", he was expressing an opinion that was widely shared in the automotive industry. "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust -- almost anything," he said. "There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.". His vision, like that of Diesel, faded into obscurity, unable to compete with readily available and inexpensive petroleum fuels.
The Stock Market crash of 1929 threatened Cummins with bankruptcy, desperate he installed a diesel engine in a limousine and showed his financier Irwin that the diesel engine could be used in automobiles, Irwin bit and supplied more investment. Cummins continued to experiment with the diesel vehicles, setting a speed record in a Duesenberg at Daytona, driving a truck with a Cummins diesel engine coast to coast on $11.22, and establishing an endurance record of 13,535 miles at Indianapolis Speedway in 1931. Cummins' diesel engines were established and trucks as well as other fleets began using them.
The first series production diesel automobile was introduced at the 1936 Berlin Auto Show by Daimler-Benz. The Mercedes-Benz Type 260D was intended to be used primarily as a taxi. It was a 4 door sedan which had a 2.6 liter, 4 cylinder engine giving a top speed of about 60 mph. About 2,000 were built before World War II began.
In 1978, when the Mercedes-Benz Type 300SD (W116) was introduced, the firm launched the "Great Diesel Search" to find out how long lasting and rugged their diesel passenger cars really were. The oldest one was found to be a 1938 Type 260D owned by Paul Dauer of Chicago, but with only 84,742 miles behind it. The high mileage car turned out to be owned by Robert O'Reilly of Olympia, Washington, whose 1957 Type 180D (W120) had traveled 1,184,880 miles.
The high mileage Type 180D was then featured in an advertising campaign during the 1980s which emphasized the durability and long lasting value of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. Mr. O'Reilly's car was also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the world's most durable car". The 2nd place award in the "Great Diesel Search" went to Edward Donaldson of Eugene, Oregon who put 912,493 miles on his 1968 Type 220D/8 (W115). Mercedes-Benz of North America, Inc. awarded a new 300SD to the owners of the oldest and highest mileage cars. The top 5 cars in the mileage class had traveled a total of 4.6 million miles.