At the 1900 Worlds Fair, the inventor/engineer Rudolph Diesel unveiled his latest invention, The Diesel Engine with the words “ladies and gentlemen – Peanut Oil”.
Whenever we think of diesel engines, most likely the image of a loud, smoke-belching car will appear. It is interesting to note then, that the inventor of the diesel engine had no intention of running his invention using noxious fossil fuels—he wanted to use peanut oil.
Rudolph Christian Karl Diesel was born in Paris in 1858 to German parents. His father was a strict disciplinarian who wouldn’t even allow friends over, so Rudolph grew up entertaining himself. He loved the arts, spoke three languages (English, German and French) and had an intense curiosity for tinkering with machines. At the age of 14, Rudolph knew he was going to become an engineer.
Diesel attended Munich Polytechnic on a scholarship and in 1880 found apprenticeship building refrigeration and steam engines. It was here that he realized how inefficient steam engines were—wasting 90% of its created energy. Diesel knew there had to be a better way.
In 1885, Diesel set up his first shop-laboratory and began work on “The theory and construction of a rational heat engine to replace steam engine and contemporary combustion engine”, a.k.a., the diesel engine. Finally, on February 27, 1892, Diesel filed a patent for his new engine. By 1893 he had the first prototype built, running on 26% fuel efficiency; after new modifications of design, in 1897 he had a model that was 75% fuel efficient! Adolphus Busch, of Budweiser fame, immediately saw the potential of this and paid Diesel for the rights to produce diesel engines in America. Rudolph Diesel was on his way to becoming a millionaire.
All this time, Diesel expected his engines to run on vegetable and seed oils. He wanted his engines to be widely available to independent artisans, craftsmen and farmers—“common folk”—without any hindrance from big oil monopolies or steam engine manufacturers. At the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, Diesel ran his engine on peanut oil and took home the Grand Prix—the most prestigious prize awarded. Inspired by a 1904 car race in Germany and a subsequent trip to the United States, Diesel got to work designing a smaller 4-cylinder engine that could be used in a moving vehicle. He was again awarded the Grand Prix at the 1910 World’s Fair in Paris for this new efficient engine.
Unfortunately, over Diesel’s lifetime his health was ailing. He had recurring intense headaches, had narrowly missed dying from Typhus and even had questionable psychological health. On September 29, 1913, Diesel boarded a mail steamer in Antwerp, Belgium, bound for Harwich, England. He was found missing the next day. Ten days later, a body was found in the English Channel and was identified as his. The world still lost one of the greatest inventors, innovators and social theorists of all time.
To this day, many rumors surround Diesel’s death. Some say it may have been accidental, others maintain it was a suicide and still others say that it was politically motivated. Diesel was a pacifist who was on good terms with the United States, England and France and he disliked the German government’s new military scheme. Shortly after Diesel’s death, the Diesel engine was taken and modified to run on the more toxic by-product of petroleum they called “Diesel” fuel. German diesel-powered submarine fleet became the most powerful in the world, thanks in part to their engines.