Today everyone has heard about diesel engines – primarily because they have now gained a public reputation as being dirty and polluting – however not everyone has heard of the man behind the engine, his creativity and the mystery surrounding his death. On that last subject there are many theories and contradictions!
Rudolph Diesel was born in Paris in 1858 where his parents lived as immigrants from Bavaria. Most reports suggest that his parents were fairly low down the economic scale with his father working as a book binder and then a leather worker. When Diesel was 12, his family was forced to flee Paris due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and the family settled in London, however he was shipped off to relatives in Augsburg in Germany to study and it was at the town’s technical school, that his uncle taught at, that the young Diesel expressed a keen interest in engineering.
He won a scholarship to the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich where he studied under Carl von Linde (the founder of the current Linde Group). Having fallen ill and taking the air of Switzerland – which also enabled him to get some practical engineering skills, he returned to Paris and helped Linde to develop patented refrigeration units. His success meant that he became a director of the company quite quickly.
Then in 1890 he moved his young family to Berlin to establish a research and development office for Linde and at the same time researched the opposite end of the temperature scale with steam. He created an engine that used ammonia mixed with the steam to help with the thermal and fuel efficiency. This engine exploded under testing resulting in Diesel receiving critical injuries that affected his ongoing health.
Diesel recognised that steam was probably not the future and he started to research internal combustion engines that operated through pressure rather than electricity to ignite the fuel source. Having studied thermodynamics he knew about the relationship between pressure and combustion, and developed an engine to prove his case – and at that point gave his name to two related products: the engine and the fuel used in it.
The MAN AG company (who still produce trucks today inside the VW Group) allowed him to use their facilities to test and gain patents for his engines whilst developing equipment for the company. We are still talking about the very beginnings of the automotive industry – Karl Benz had only just shown his horseless carriage!
The Diesel engine took off – mainly because it could run on a variety of fuels and his first one used peanut oil as the source. Hydrocarbon “diesels” were being developed as a byproduct of the refinement of crude oil and these started to dominate, however Diesel himself, was quite happy using early biofuels! His research suggested that steam engines weren’t energy efficient – at that time he suggested a 90/10 ratio of waste to power and his engine had a 75/25 ratio. Better, but still inefficient by today’s standards.
At the 1900 Worlds Fair in Paris, the Otto Company (of “Otto Cycle” fame) demonstrated the Diesel engine using peanut oil, in fact this engine could run with many types of “diesel” fuels. Diesel himself, was keen to offer an engine that did not rely solely on one fuel source. The success of his engine design and with patents purchased in Europe and the US, meant that Diesel was becoming a rich man – a far cry from his birth in Paris. He sold the rights to the manufacturing of the engine in the US to Adolphus Busch for $250,000 who sold the engines as well as installing and using them in the family brewing business.
There are reports however, that after he created his engine, he felt that it worked just fine and didn’t want to refine it and having sold the rights for it to be manufactured across the globe, soon found that there were tens of thousands of units in operation. Some reports say that he wasn’t interested in ongoing development – just the cash and other reports hint that maybe his health was declining and that was the reason why. I did read an article that stated he was openly critical of the manufacturing plants producing his designs and he was intent on alienating himself from other engineers!
Mystery surrounding his death
He died in September 1913 and we know a handful of facts for sure. He was on a steamship heading from Belgium to Harwich in the east of England to attend meetings in London. After dining with two colleagues, he returned to his cabin and was never seen again. When the ship docked, they found his cabin to be very neat and tidy, his sleepwear was on the bed and his watch was placed ready to be seen in the morning. He was reported missing and the family notified. His hat and coat were found near the railings on deck.
Ten days later a badly decomposed body was found in the water off Antwerp and rather than get it out of the water, the sailors who saw the corpse, emptied the pockets of the clothes and presented the items to the authorities. A body was recovered several days later and the harbourmaster and Diesel’s youngest son, Eugen, confirmed that the items were from Diesel yet neither could formally identify the body. This is where the mystery starts:
- Before leaving for the UK, Diesel gave his wife a bag and told her to open it a week later. When she did, she discovered 20,000 Deutsche Marks (some reports say 200,000) and bank statements that showed that the family bank accounts were empty.
- It was known that he was suffering from ill health and had insomnia.
- There are reports that he was due to receive requests to pay large interest payments on loans he had taken out. These payments would have bankrupted him.
- His diary, found in his cabin, had an “x” marked on the day he disappeared.
The first theory revolves around the loss of much of his millions through bad investments and therefore a suicide was suggested – in fact this was the official cause of death.
- He was on the ship to go to a meeting of the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Company in London and onboard were oil industry funded hitmen who threw him overboard.
- This was to prevent him from refining his engine that would reduce sales of the oil companies.
This theory seems implausible for a couple of reasons. One is that with the increase in sales of hydrocarbon based diesel fuel, the oil companies would actually want him to improve the engine design, thus selling more. This in turn, would increase the sales of the fuel – bearing in mind that diesel was a byproduct of refining crude oil as was petrol, the ability to earn more per barrel would be a compelling reason to keep him alive. On the flip side, Diesel was happy to use biofuels, so could have started that market much quicker. The other reason why I think this theory is possibly implausible is where the ship was going. I appreciate that Harwich was a major port, however it is some way from London and he could have travelled a much quicker route and used a closer port to the city. It is not a direct route for sure and probably more expensive in time and money!
- The meeting with the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing Company was a cover for another more secretive meeting: with the British Navy.
- Diesel’s engines had been fitted to the U-Boats of the German Navy a few years earlier and he was interested in selling more licences.
- Reports suggest that he was murdered by German (some say French) spies who wanted to keep the German Navy in front of the technology race.
- There are reports that in the weeks leading up to his trip, Diesel started to act very erratically and spent time with his sons showing them which keys opened which drawer in the house, possibly knowing that the trip was dangerous.
There is scant evidence to prove this, however, you would expect that, considering what was about to happen to Europe and the concept of Wikileaks was science fiction for the time! Interestingly, Harwich used to be a big Royal Navy dock, although not at the time that Diesel travelled there – it could be possible that a military meeting was to be held undercover in the town.
- It was a ruse to escape his debts and possibly the impending war by faking his death – not uncommon, it has been done a few times in recent decades.
- He ended up in Canada (according to reports during World War 1).
Diesel would have known that Germany was gearing up militarily because he had been involved in the U-Boat development program. What he wouldn’t have known was when the fuse would be lit – by a completely unrelated event. If his significant debts were accurate, then perhaps he thought this was a plan to default cleanly! What probably debunks this, is that he abandoned his family – something that as a committed Christian he wouldn’t have done, unless he was under extreme pressure I suppose.
One thing is for sure, his death will remain a mystery for many decades unless there is proof held by Governments that is made available to researchers.
Diesel and his wife had two sons and a daughter – all grown up by the time of his death and the younger son became a writer and did write about his father. The Rudolph Diesel Medal is now awarded in Germany for invention and the economic benefit derived from it. The first recipient was his son, Eugen Diesel. Other recipients have included Karl Benz and Ferdinand Zeppelin (both posthumous).
Rudolph Diesel was inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame based in the US during 1974 thanks to his pioneering work on early engines and fuel sources. His name will forever be linked to land transportation.