The laws of thermodynamics fascinated Rudolf Diesel. He saw in them a way to change society to protect small craftsmen and artisans from the tide of big business.
Diesel was born in Paris, but studied at Munich Polytechnic, where he was a sort of renaissance man. Arts, linguistics and social theories then in development all held him in a spell.
He saw how large factories, which had the capital to invest in large steam engines to power their equipment, were ruining small businesses.
How could the little enterprises withstand this pressure? Only by having at their disposal an easily adaptable source of energy. Steam engines then had a mechanical efficiency of 10 percent, so Diesel set out to apply the laws of thermodynamics to create an engine that would be more efficient.
One day Diesel saw something strange: a pneumatic cigarette lighter. Small pieces of tinder were in a little glass tube. With a piston, air was compressed in the tube and the tinder started to glow. This vision set him afire. He set up a laboratory in Paris in 1885 and took out his first patent in 1892. In August 1893 he went to Augsburg, Germany, where he showed the forerunner of MAN AG (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nuerenberg) a 9-foot-long iron cylinder with a piston driving a flywheel.
It was an economic thermodynamic engine to replace the steam engine. Diesel called it an atmospheric gas engine, but the name didn't stick. He continued to work. On New Year's Eve 1896 he proudly displayed an engine that had a theoretical efficiency of 75.6 percent. This theoretical efficiency could not be attained, but there was nothing to equal it - and there is nothing to equal it to this day - in thermodynamic engines.
The self-igniting engine was a sensation of the outgoing century, though Rudolf Diesel's dream of enabling the small craftsmen to withstand the power of big industry did not occur. Instead, big industry quickly took up his idea, and Diesel became rich from his royalties.
From all over the world, money flowed to him as his engines became the standard to power ships, electric plants, pumps and oil drills.
In 1908 Diesel and the Swiss mechanical firm of Saurer created a faster-running engine that turned at 800 rpm, but the automotive industry was slower to adopt Diesel's engine.
MAN was the first, and in 1924, a MAN truck became the first vehicle to use a direct-injection diesel engine. At the same time Benz & Cie in Germany also presented a diesel truck, but Benz used the mixing chamber that Daimler-Benz kept into the 1990s.