Engine of Progress

German engineer Rudolf Diesel, the inventor known for his durable engine, was born on this day in 1853. When he was 40, Diesel published ideas for an engine that he believed would be more efficient than either steam or gasoline engines. He was manufacturing his namesake by 1899.

Diesel's machine relies on internal combustion, but lacks a carburetor to premix air and fuel and spark plugs to ignite the mixture. Instead, air in the cylinder is compressed to high pressure and temperature, and injected fuel ignites spontaneously. By the 1920s, the popular diesel engine had reached the United States, and by the 1950s, a large proportion of the world's ships and trains were diesel driven, with trucks, tractors, and buses following close behind.

[Source: Roy Porter, Ed., The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (Oxford University Press, ed. 2, 1994).]