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Cruise ship Disney Wonder leaving Vancouver for Alaska. June 2022, picture by Martin Leduc

Rudolph Christian Carl Diesel

March 18, 1858,

September 29, 1913
In the English Channel
Rudolph Diesel
A brief biography of Rudolph Diesel

Authored by Martin Leduc, 1999, Updated 2008, 2013

Rudolph Diesel was born to Theodor and Elise Diesel, in their small Paris apartment, at 38 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, on March 18, 1958. Theodore, a leather worker in his late twenties, and making small consumer good, had immigrated from Augsburg, in Bavaria, in 1848. In 1855 he met a Elise, the daughter of a prosperous merchant who was also from Augsburg, they wed shortly after. 

Rudolph had an older sister, Louise, born in 1856, as well as a younger sister, Emma, born in 1859. At that time Theodore was having some business success, and moved the family into a new apartment on "rue de la Fontaine au Roi", where he established his small business downstairs. Theodore worked his shop from dawn to dusk, six days a week. He was a strong disciplinarian, but unfortunately, a poor manager of funds.

Rudolph was not allowed to bring friends over, and grew into a shy, but curious youngster, spending much time drawing. His curious nature almost got him killed, when he tinkered with their apartment's gas distribution system. Small lies and "screw ups" were not tolerated by Rudolph's father, standard punishment was swift and hard.

Rudolph Diesel's parents, Elise and Theodore
Elise and Theodore Diesel, married on the 10 of September, 1855 in London

Rudolph's artistic side was matched with excellent academic performance, he spoke three languages: German at home, French at school, and English, which was taught by his mother, a one time governess in London. Rudolph spent his free time at the 'Conservatoire des Art Metiers', a repository for odd and ends of inventions. Rudolph finished elementary school, and was awarded a scholarship for excellence.

France, under Emperor Napoleon III, was sliding into difficult times and a convenient scapegoat of this hardship was the growing confederation known as Germany, and it's dominant Prussian influence. Eventually, France declared war on Prussia, on July 19, 1869. The Diesels considered themselves Bavarian, with more of a French influence than Prussian one. Regardless, when the French army began losing ground, displaced persons quickly engulfed Paris seeking refuge, and the Diesels were ordered out of the country. On September 6, 1869, the Diesels boarded a steamer from Rouen, bound for New Haven, England.

With little comforts in England, the Diesels manage to get by, Louise, the eldest daughter began to work in a private school, while Rudolph was enrolled for school in London. He was most impressed by the British Museum, and the South Kensington Museum's exhibits of science and engineering.

A young Rudolph Diesel
A young Rudolph Diesel
Theodore's cousin, Betty Barnickel, heard of the Diesel's situation in London, and offered to take Rudolph into their home, in Augsburg. The Diesels accepted the offer, and Rudolph boarded a steamer across the channel to Rotterdam, bound for Bavaria.

Betty was married to Cristoph Barnickel, a professor at the Augsburg's Royal District Trade School, and they lived in a modest but warm home. They quickly fell in love with Rudolph, after all, he was handsome, modest, and intelligent. 12 year old Rudolph was enrolled in a three year program at Koniglichen Kreis-Gewerbsschule, which offered outlets for all his deepest passion. The chemistry lab, art gallery, machine shop and forge provided fertile ground for a young imaginative mind.

On his fourteen birthday, Rudolph declared that he was to become an engineer! He wrote to his parents in July, 1871, to let them know his intentions to excel in his choice of career. With the war ending six month earlier, Rudolph's family had moved back to Paris, and Theodore was anxious for his son to start earning some money. Soon after finishing industrial school, and placing first in his class, Rudolph returned to Paris. However, tragedy struck the Diesel family, when Rudolph's eldest sister, Louise, dies of heart failure. In light of this development, the Barnickels renew their offer to have Rudolph come back to live with them in Augsburg. Grief-stricken, Theodore accepts their offer.

Back in Bavaria, Rudolph was enrolled in the mechanical engineering program, and as it became the norm, excelled. In 1883, he graduates as the youngest student, with the highest school marks. As a result, he was awarded a scholarship to Munchen Polytechnic, where his interest broaden. In Munchen, Rudolph makes several friendships during this time, and also becomes a German citizen. When Theodore and Elise relocated to Munchen from Paris, they find their towering son, 185 cm, with a prominent scholarship, and a deferment from the required three years of military service.

Rudolph finds his parents had changed, they were a little strange. His father had turn to spirituality soon after his daughter's death, and had set himself up as a faith healer. In the summer of 1879, Rudolph, like many Germans, grew sicker with Typhus. Bedridden and miserable, he completes his final examinations. Typhus had claimed many lives in Germany over that summer, including that of Betty Barnickel.

In January 1880, Rudolph joins the Sulzer Engine Works, in Winterthur, Switzerland, as an apprentice, building refrigeration machines and steam engines. Although "just" an apprentice, a "bleu monteur", he grows more confident in his convictions, and begins his harden belief that there must be a better way - a more fuel efficient machine. At the time, 90% of the fuel for an engine was wasted, a blasphemy to Rudolph, who was raised to loathe waste from his strict father.

Sadi Carnot
Sadi Carnot, author of the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics
Rudolph reads a book by Sadi Carnot - "Reflexion sur la puissance motrisse de feu", published in 1824, and in these writings, he finds the ideals he wanted to achieve. Sadi Carnot was a gifted engineer, specializing in thermodynamics, and he cut right to the heart of the heat engine, giving us the "First Law of Thermodynamics"; "heat and mechanical energy are convertible to each other, but are never created or destroyed, only changed in form". Sadi Carnot also gives us the other two "Laws of Thermodynamics".

As usual, Rudolph excelled in his work, and had made quite an impression with peers and supervisors. He was soon dispatched to Paris, to oversee the building of a refrigeration plant. Despite this jump in status, to white collar, he still earn blue collar wages, a meager existence, void of comforts was the norm for the budding engineer.

1881 was an exhilarating year for apprentice Rudolph. His financial situation changed when Sulzer doubled his salary, and he was also granted his first patent for the production of table ice in glass containers. To cap off the year, Rudolph found a love interest, in the form of a mistress, Martha Flasche, from the United States. She was the Governess of a well to do German family, the Brandes, who approved of Rudolph. Who wouldn't? He was smart, talented, and had a growing salary.

Karl Linde
Karl Linde gives Rudolph his first job and introduce him to the works of Carnot
With his first patent secured, Rudolph began to search for a manufacturer to build his conceptual machine. During this search he kindles a friendship with the Augsburg Machine Works, where Heinrich von Buz, and Carl Augustus Reichenbach, once managers, were now owners of the workshop. The Augsburg Machine Works soon began making parts for Diesel's refrigeration machine, which in late 1883 had become a working ice machine. Shortly after this milestone, in November 1883, Rudolph and Martha were married, launching another whirlwind year. The refrigeration machine was a commercial success, and the Diesel began to see some income from it, which was well timed with the birth of their first child, a son, Rudolph Jr.

A year later, in October 1885, Heddy, a baby girl is born to the couple. However, the second child comes into the family, amidst economic troubles. France's sentiment against the German, and even the Swiss is once again troubled, making the "German" made ice machines a hard sell, and Rudolph's income suffers. The burdens of responsibilities, bring back the violent headaches he had suffered from during childhood.

On May 3, 1889, the couple's third child is born, Eugen, arrives into the world amidst strong anti German sentiment. Rudolph is the only German engineer invited at the International Engineering Congress, and presents his paper, "Revue Technique de l'Exposition Universelle". Although he was warmly accepted as a Frenchman, he traded away his refrigeration franchise in France, for the sales rights in Germany, and some money. This would represent a new situation for Rudolph, requiring relocation to Berlin. Rudolph moved his family to Berlin in 1890, to Martha's delight, but he himself had a hard time adjusting to the Prussian military social atmosphere.

A chanced encounter with an old school mate rekindles his competitive spirit, and Rudolph is inspired to work his theories, into an engine design, which he submits for a patent. At first, his submission is declined as being "not original", however, after an appeal, a patent is granted on February 28, 1892. Rudolph now had 15 years of protection, and a pressing need to find a builder for his new engine concept.

Heinrich von Buz, manager of the Ausgburg Machine Works and a good friend of Rudolph Diesel

 Heinrich von Buz, manager of the Augsburg Machine Works

Remembering his friends in Augsburg, Rudolph approaches Heinrich von Buz, but being the methodical, and accomplished engineer himself, turned him down. The design was based on Rudolph's paper, "The theory and construction of a rational heat engine to replace steam engine and contemporary combustion engine", a title that didn't exactly warm Buz's heart, or make his factory's chief engineer - a staunch supporter of steam engines - enthusiastic about the new idea. Undeterred, Rudolph rewrote the manuscript, and Buz accepted to build a prototype. With a more confine description of the operation of his design, Rudolph sought further patents in Germany, the United States, and England .

The development of Rudolph's ideas at the Augsburg Machine Works result in a steady income for him; but he is anticipating a even better payoff if it the engine works as designed. With this anticipation, he goes on a frenzy of contract signing, and names like Krupp, Sulzer, lines up to sign deals to "be part of the action". The new engine commences testing, and finally, the first run in July 1893. But Rudolph comes to the sudden realization that his design needs much more development work, so much so, that he moves the family into a more modest apartment. The new engine showed promise, but it needed far reaching re-engineering.

The diesel engine prototype in 1893
The diesel engine prototype in 1893 
During the development work in Augsburg over 1893-1894, Rudolph was again staying with Cristoph Barnickel. Cristoph, in his fifties and widowed three years earlier, had married Emma Diesel, Rudolph's youngest sister. They had built a house after their marriage in September, and invite Rudolph to stay with them while he worked on the new engine.

On February 17, 1894, the redesigned engine ran for 88 revolutions - one minute; with this news, Maschinefabrik Augsburg's stock rose by 30%, indicative of the tremendous anticipated demands for a more efficient engine. In 1896, Rudolph's rushed to have a prototype running, in order to maintain the patent. The first engine ready for testing was built on December 31, 1896; a much different engine than the one they had started with. In 1897, between deal signing, and brainstorming episodes they succeed, the engine runs; 16.93kW with an efficiency of 16.6%, he is granted the patent.

In 1897, Rudolph was busy, some financial success was finally coming to him. Companies were approaching him for the rights to build his new efficient engine, while at home, Martha and the kids, were moved into a new, luxurious apartment, complete with a staff. Rudolph had reached a form of social success. With that success came a desire to build a mansion, buying property in Munchen for this purpose; Rudolph undertook new hobbies like photography, and was enjoying theatre and opera.

Rudolph Diesel was gifted in many different fields, "including" personal finances, his gift was that no matter how much money came in, more went out. 

Rudolph was making many friends, including Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin and Aldolphus Busch to name few. Adolphus Busch was a German immigrant who had made it big, brewing beer in the United States, he was wealthy and had the means to build Diesel's engine. Upon counsel from his adviser, Busch himself went to Germany, where he proceeded to buy the rights for the new engine from Rudolph Diesel, by nonchalantly writing a check for 1,000,000 marks. It was only the beginning, as newly formed companies lined up for the opportunity to build the new Diesel engine.

In 1898, the inventor's fortieth birthday, he was riding high. A millionaire, on paper, five times over, a wife mingling with the elite social crowd, three beautiful, smart children; along with his personal health and demeanor being radiant. All thanks to his idea of a better, more efficient world, and his hard work and determination to put it together. Indeed, a wonderful time for him.

In order to manage the explosive growth of the Diesel engine, Rudolph establishes a company to manage the licensing, it is called the General Diesel Corporation. Founded on September 17, 1898, and tasked with the further developments and management of the Diesel engine, the corporation buys all of Rudolph's patents for a sum of 3.5 million German marks. Shortly after, Rudolph is diagnosed with nervous exhaustion, and enters a private sanatorium in Munchen.

Not feeling any better, he leaves the Munchen sanatorium, but he is further agonized by the fantastic fortunes beginning to roll in, and the problems associated with it. The violent headaches that had plague him for a long time were becoming more prevalent, and his doctors decide that a "rest castle" in the Alps, might be better for him. In April of 1898, he enters the "rest castle", during his time there, Rudolph invests heavily into an oil development in the Balkans. This investments promptly goes sour, and he loses 300,000 marks, at a time when his "dream" mansion, Maria - Theresia - Strasse 32, was taking shape.

The Maria - Theresia - Strasse 32 mansion was magnificent. It had all the "modern luxuries", as well as kids amenities. Plumbed and wired to the highest standards, marble fireplaces in every room, even the windows were custom made. The decoration was luxurious, painted vaulted ceiling, French furniture, Italian wardrobes etc. All, for a staggering sum of money, pushing the Diesel's financial situation precariously close to disaster. But all was not doom and gloom; in 1900, Rudolph was invited to witness the first flight of the 128 meter Luftshiftf Zeppelin 1 airship, one of the grandest events ever. Additionally, the Diesel engine takes the "Grand Prix", the highest prize, at the 1900 Paris Exposition, an event attended by 50 million people.

The Diesel Family; Rudolph, Eugen, Martha, Heddy and Rudolph Jr. in 1900
The Diesel Family; Rudolph, Eugen, Martha, Heddy
and Rudolph Jr. in 1900

In 1904, Rudolph attends a car race in Germany, and comes back excited, with one of his own, a very fast, gas powered Mercedes. With this purchase, he overestimated his ability to drive it, mainly his vision and gouty right foot, so he ends up hiring a driver. Later that year, he decides to travel to the United States. After spending some time in New York City, he traveled to St Louis, to be a guest of Adolphus Busch, who was having a tough time selling the engine in the United States. Rudolph traveled far and wide, and takes in all the sight. Amazingly, the trip rejuvenates him, and as soon as he came back to Germany, he designs and builds a four cylinder "petite" version of his engine. That engine, would later win the 1910 "Grand Prix" in Paris.

1907 was a troublesome year for the Diesels, this, despite their daughter Heddy's marriage to Arnold von Schmidt, an engineer. The marriage was the social event of the year in Munchen, but was marked by the return of headaches, most likely caused by Rudolph's astonishing loss of 3.5 millions marks. Additionally, the patent ran out on the Diesel engine; causing further stress.

Rudolph Diesel and Thomas Edison exchange ideas

Rudolph Diesel and Thomas Edison exchange ideas

In 1911, Rudolph is invited to be co-guest of honor with Sir Charles Parsons, the inventor of the compound steam turbine, at the World Congress of Mechanical Engineers in London. After London, Rudolph and Martha go to the United States, to assist Mr. Busch promote the floundering diesel engine. America, land of plenty, had too many resources to really care about an efficient engine. When they return to the Germany, they are forced to pay 600,000 marks resulting from a lawsuit by a real estate company. Rudolph's headaches grow in severity. The latest financial woes brings up the total losses of the Diesel's up to nearly ten million marks. In 1913, he publishes a book about the origins of the Diesel engine, and makes a small dent into the his debt.

Being a pacifist adds further health strains, when war starts brewing in the Balkans. Rudolph takes life a bit slower now, taking time to enjoy simpler things, like hiking. He sells the car to help pay some of his debts, and his friends comment on a "less proud man", that Mr. Diesel had become. The eldest son, Rudolph Jr., leaves school to become a clerk, much to the disappointment of Rudolph senior, but he soon marries, producing a grandson for the Diesels. Eugen, the Diesel's youngest son, had an intense desire to follow in his dad's footstep, and Sulzer in Switzerland, takes him on as a "bleu monteur", like his father 30 years before.

Declaration of war in the Balkans and the mortgage on the new mansion, weight heavy on Rudolph; the future seemed quite bleak. With Martha away to visit her mother in Remscheid, he accepts an invitation to England, to dine with Sir Parsons. Before leaving Munchen, he summons his eldest son for a short visit; Rudolph Jr. would later state that their time together was "bizarre", his father had taken him around the house and showed him the keys for the rooms. Rudolph, on his way to England spends two weeks in Frankfurt, with Heddy, Martha, and his grandchildren. Before leaving Frankfurt, he leaves Martha a leather case, with instruction that it be well looked after, and not opened.

On September 26, 1913, he boards a slow train to Belgium, first class. In Gent, he checks into the Hotel de la Poste, where 31 years earlier he had met his wife Martha. He writes her a loving, but confused letter, which he misaddresses; it would not reach Martha until after a lengthy delay. On September 28, he writes another letter his son, mentioning his headaches and insomnia troubles.

The next afternoon, he boards the steamer Dresden, at Antwerp, with the line's owner, George Carels, and it's chief engineer, Alfred Laukman. That evening, September 29, they have a pleasant dinner with Rudolph, whom they found to be in good spirits. When Rudolph does not meet Mr. Carels and Mr. Laukman for breakfast the following morning, the ship is searched. Rudolph Diesel's cabin was found empty, the bed had not been slept in, and the luggage had not been opened. His coat and hat were found neatly folded under the ship's stern railing. Capt. H Hubert ordered the ship to search, but to no avail, he was reported missing September 30. The inventor's notebook had a small cross under the 29th of September, nothing else.

11 days later, on October 10, the Belgian steamer Coertsen, spots a body in the water and recover personal effects from it, leaving the body at sea. The effects were later identified by Eugen Diesel, in the Dutch port of Vlissingen, as his father's articles. When Martha opened the bag Rudolph had left for her, she found twenty thousand marks, and financial statements showing all bank accounts were empty; it appeared that Rudolph had taken his life.  

Rudolph Diesel - inventor of the Diesel engine - the prime mover which changed a world
Picture of original diesel engine German patent

Shell Petroleum's film "Diesel Story" 89mb

Official biography by Rudolph's son Eugen
Plaque on Diesel's childhood home in Paris.
Photo by Matt Larson

Diesel's childhood home in Paris.
Photo by Matt Larson

I am by no means a scholar on Rudolph Diesel, but I am fascinated by his invention and wanted to know it's roots, the result is the above piece. The book I obtained most of my information is "Diesel: the man and the engine" - Morton Grosser, McClelland & Stewart 1978, along with a French historical magazine called "Cahier de Science & Vie" - Feb 1996. The "MAN Forum" Issue 1, 2003, also has a brief write up. I also recommend reading the brief biography of Rudolph Diesel, the only version of Eugen Diesel's work that I could find in English, as found in the book "From Engines to Autos: Five Pioneers in Engine Development and Their Contributions to the Automotive Industry". Eugen Diesel has a very engaging writing style which makes reading not only his father's biography enjoyable, but also Bosch, Otto, and others, found in his book.

For further information you might want to try "Die Entstehung des Dieselmotors" by Rudolf Diesel, Berlin 1913 about the engine itself, and "Diesel. Der Mensch - Das Werk - Das Schicksal" Hamburg 1937/41 - Rudolph Diesel's biography by his son, Eugen Diesel (pictured above) but from what I can see, its only available in German.

Throughout 2008, the City of Augsburg celebrated Rudolph Diesel's 150th birthday, with a full calendar of events and festivities in Augsburg, Germany; check out the program guide here.

Wikipedia has this entry, in French, on Rudolph Diesel.

There has been a movie made about the life of Rudolph Diesel, made in 1942, (part of it are in the "Diesel Story" available above) if you have a copy of it, or know where I can get it, write me ! Any comments, corrections and suggestions, are always welcomed. Email me

Peter S. from New Zealand did, he writes...

" I have just found your website, and enjoyed reading your historical timeline.

You ask about history books - have you read Lyle Cummins books? For example his latest book about submarine diesels uncovers some interesting history about the Vickers common rail engines. The 2nd book is essential reading for diesel engine history, and the 3rd is also good. The 1st book is excellent, but covers the whole field of early internal combustion.

Internal Fire; the internal combustion engine, 1673-1900
Diesel's Engine; volume one From Conception to 1918
Diesel's for the first stealth weapon: submarine power 1902-1945

Lyle also wrote: The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins

A History of Marine Engineering by John Guthrie is a good book written by a marine engineer. Easy to read,mostly steam but it includes diesels, gas turbines etc. Published in 1971 so not so easy to find.

I was interested to see you have an article by Denis Griffiths. Denis used to have a web site, but it seems to have vanished, I hope he is still around. I have several of his books, a couple of them are about marine steam engines, excellent books. "

Click here to see a chronological list of event in the development of the marine prime mover.

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