Life under pressure

His name is his legacy, but Rudolph Diesel was a man said to be as explosive as his engines.

POWER TRIP: Rudolph Diesel begrugingly co-operated with MAN and Krupp to develop the power plant that would change the machine world forever
POWER TRIP: Rudolph Diesel begrugingly co-operated with MAN and Krupp to develop the power plant that would change the machine world forever

His name is his legacy, but Rudolph Diesel was a man said to be as explosive as his engines.

German streets have been buzzing this year, as truck company MAN hold a string of celebrations for its 250th anniversary.

Most people know the name from the front of trucks, but few realise the role the Ausburg-based company had in developing the diesel engine.

In the 1890s, the then company boss Heinrich von Buz, became interested in the plans for an invention known as the 'rational heat engine' being developed by one Rudolph Diesel.

The firm gave Diesel some money and use of its engineering facilities, but early results were not promising.

The necessary pressure could not be achieved. Diesel wanted to compress - and thus heat - air in a cylinder with such great pressure that only a tiny amount of fuel would be needed to generate an explosion and drive the cylinder piston.

But the pressure Diesel hoped to attain could not be done at the end of the 19th century. The first engines exploded in quite spectacular fashion. Diesel, as he admitted himself, had based his calculations college-book theory, rather than real-world engineering. This, in turn gave him problems with his backers.

However, the early problems just made him more determined; "The desire to realize ideal Carnot (compression ignition) processes then dominated my existence." he wrote.

He was thus not very enthusiastic about the criticism of his model made by the Augsburg engineers - even suspecting wrongly that chief engineer Josef Krumper held personal resentments against him. He did concede, however, that "a deviation from the ideal process would enable engines to be constructed using today's means".

Diesel was anything but an easy cooperation partner for the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg. Deviating from his idea of the "ideal process" was very problematic for him, both in regard to his patent as well as from a personal point of view.

Technical help from the Krupp company - best known back then for making cannons - was offered and, begrudgingly Diesel accepted.

This was to prove to be a good partnership and in 1897 the first proper engine was demonstrated at the University of Munich, paving the way for every compression engine to bear the inventors name from then on.

This should be a happy ending, but Diesel mysteriously disappeared while making a voyage to London in 1913. No one knows why, but his inventions were highly political in the run-up to WW1. His name, of course lives on.

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