Practitioners in History: Rudolf Diesel

by Nico Scopelliti

As a scientist and visionary, Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) was a practitioner of the highest order. Employing his knowledge of engineering and thermodynamics, he looked at the steam powered engines of the day and the huge coal industry built to support them and knew there was a better way. Rudolf set out to optimize man's approach to power generation and in so doing, transformed not only how we generate electricity, but how we transport materials, goods and people around the globe.

Diesel's detractors told him it wasn't possible and many of his first attempts didn't work. The pressure necessary to force the temperature of air high enough to ignite fuel was one challenge. Injecting the fuel in the right quantity into the compressed chamber posed another obstacle. But such challenges only sent the man back to the drawing board, where he developed creative solutions to those problems, including air-blast injection, the predecessor of modern day fuel injection.

Many resisted the advent of the diesel engine and its superiority to the steam engine, and bemoan it to this day. "Superior" in efficiency and cost, but inferior in character, is their anthropomorphic argument. Steam engines eat food, drink water, and breathe air the way we do. They work to a pulsating rhythm like a heart and make noise and yell the way we do. They get sick and behave temperamentally and have personality the way we do. They seem to have good days and bad days, days where they don't want to wake up in the morning and days where they're raring to go, ready to give you everything they've got. How could we not love a machine that so reminds us of ourselves?

But the tremendous waste created and the cost of burning coal and maintaining a steam engine can't be justified with arguments based on nostalgia and mystique. We lost a lot when we left the steam engine behind, but we gained a great deal more with Diesel. 68% percent of the freight moved in the USA is transported by semi-trucks on our highways, nearly all of which are powered by diesel. The modern diesel engine can produce power at greater than 50% efficiency, and when coupled with an electric generator, reaches 80%. Personal vehicles and airplanes rely on other fuels due to diesel's disadvantages, among which are the higher relative weight of a diesel engine and the fuel being less readily available than gasoline. But in applications where low RPMs and high torque are required - that is, nearly all of heavy industry, nearly all ground, rail, and sea transportation, and a substantial portion of electricity generation - diesel is clearly indicated.

Rudolf Diesel's ingenuity and commitment fueled the development of the modern age we live in today.

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