Nikolaus Otto is an engineer who probably did more to get the industry moving than anyone during the early days. Otto’s claim to fame is the Otto Cycle that the majority of internal combustion engines use as the process to create power.
Otto was born in the Rhineland, Germany in 1832 the same year his father died. He did the usual schooling for the time and although he didn’t finish it, he was very interested in science and technology. This didn’t help much as he took an apprenticeship in business and went to work for several retailers selling “colonial goods” – these were goods created or grown in countries that were sourced from Europe’s colonies and then imported via the home country to Germany. Nothing to do with what really interested him!
During 1860, Otto and his brother (a businessman focused on textiles) heard about an engine created by a Belgian engineer, Jean Joseph Lenoir. This motor was powered by gas and was one of the first commercially successful internal combustion engines. The Otto brothers cloned it to work with a liquid fuel and tried to patent it in Germany with no success.
The idea was sound so Nikolaus went searching for a business partner – and found one in Eugen Langan, a wealthy son of an industrialist. The result was a company called NA Otto & Cie with a pure focus of creating engines.
By 1876, Otto had designed 4 different engines, each an evolution of the last one. The last one was a four stroke, compressed charge motor – this was the start of the evolutionary branch that we know today and is the basis of the Otto Cycle. Like many engineers, Otto couldn’t have done it without a team of engineers and a manager directing the works. That manager was Gottlieb Daimler! Over a 17 year period, the company manufactured over 30-50,000 units. Reports differ on the amount produced.
Daimler and Otto didn’t see eye to eye and the split meant that Daimler left the company taking another engineer with him. That engineer was Wilhelm Maybach – another automotive pioneer. Daimler seemed intent on damaging Otto by fighting his patents and working to create a more efficient engine with Maybach. Daimler had a win by getting Otto’s patent cancelled, however it is Otto who’s name is synonymous with the power generation process.
Next on the list of inventions was a magneto ignition system for low voltages. This system allowed the ignition spark to only happen at the full compression point of his cycle. He developed this during 1884 in conjunction with Robert Bosch. Magneto ignition systems had been developed earlier, however it was Otto and Bosch who perfected it. Commercially, this system first appeared on a Daimler sourced motor, which I’m sure frustrated Otto.
Otto was the father of 7 children, one of whom, Gustav, became a founder of what would become BMW. Otto died of unknown causes in Cologne in early 1891 at the early age of 59. His obituary stated that he succumbed to a brief illness.
Otto’s company is still in existence today under a different name. In 1872, before Otto’s team had figured out his breakthrough, the company was restructured as Gasmotoren-fabrik Deutz. That company is now simply called Deutz and still makes engines amongst other products.