The foundation of the modern engine
Nicolaus Otto was a happy-go-lucky young man who traveled through western Germany in the 1850s selling rice, coffee, tea and sugar.
He was trying to make enough money to wed his beloved Ann, who he met at a carnival in Cologne in 1858, when he was 26.
But young Otto had a fascination for things mechanical. In 1860, he heard about Frenchman Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir's successful experiments with internal combustion engines.
"In his youthful enthusiasm he thought of this day and night," wrote Kurt Rathke in his biography of Otto. "He had the wildest plans about the future, all to do with the gas engine and its possibilities."
According to Rathke, Otto was inspired by watching smoke rise from a chimney.
"He decided that the place of explosion in a gas engine, which he likened to the chimney, should receive a rich fuel mixture. His idea was to let only fresh air enter first and fall down on unburned gases from the previous working stroke. Only then should the gas mixture be inducted."
Otto's early attempts at building a combustion engine failed. But they impressed Eugen Langen, a technician and proprietor of a sugar factory, who took on Otto as a partner. The two men established N.A. Otto & Cie., the first engine company in the world - and the forerunner of today's Deutz AG. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach later joined the company.
Lenoir built the first commercially practical internal combustion engine in 1859. Two years later, Alphonse Beau de Rochas set forth the principle of the four-stroke engine. But it was Otto who in 1876 built the first practical high-compression, four-stroke engine with ignition device.
On its first stroke the piston would draw in an explosive mixture of fuel and air. The second, return stroke would compress the mixture. Ignition would then explode the charge, the resulting expansion driving the piston for its third stroke. The final stroke would exhaust the burnt gases, clearing the cylinder to start the cycle again.
Otto patented his construction in 1877. He never became involved directly in car manufacturing, but his compressed-charge engine marked the beginning of an era of pioneering and was the foundation of the modern engine.