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An engine fit for the world

Collage of a diesel engine and a globe

Picture: Deutsches Museum, München

Today’s ocean liners, heavy goods vehicles and backup power generators all have one thing in common – they are generally powered by a diesel engine. Rudolf Diesel’s invention has been driving the world since 1893 – and its roots can be traced back to his studies at what would later become the Technical University of Munich (TUM), and a fire piston.

Diesel’s mission: use fuel more efficiently

When Rudolf Diesel got his hands on a fire piston during a physics class in school, he was thrilled. At first glance, the device looks like a small bicycle pump, but when you push the piston firmly into it, it produces a flame. As a boy, Diesel was fascinated by this technology. Compression alone heats the air inside – and to such a degree that a piece of tinder in the cylinder base ignites. Decades later, he would apply this principle when designing the engine the whole world now knows by his name.

A few years after this first experience with the fire piston, Diesel learned something astonishing during his mechanical engineering studies: In a lecture at TUM’s forerunner, the Technische Hochschule München, his professor Carl von Linde explained that the steam engine, a common form of transport at the time, only harnessed a very small amount of the energy available to it. From then on, Diesel was driven by the idea of building a more efficient drivetrain system.

After years of trial and error, Diesel’s vision ultimately became reality. In 1893, German mechanical engineering company Maschinenfabrik Augsburg (later MAN) started building a prototype of his engine. Just a few years later, it also found a market in the US and Switzerland. To this day, the diesel engine drives our world, despite the controversy around exhaust fumes in traffic. It scales in size from portable three-kilowatt generators to marine engines as tall as a house, unleashing tens of thousands of horsepower.

“Just look at the long, wide and exciting technology path that lies before us!”

Portrait Rudolf Diesel

Rudolf Diesel, 1881, to mechanical engineering students a year after his graduation from the Technische Hochschule München (now TUM)

Bild: Copyright Historisches Archiv der MAN Augsburg

Curious? More discoveries and inventions spanning 150 years of TUM

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