OCTOBER 11, 1913.
There was something in the water.
Crew members of the Dutch pilot steamer Coertzen
approached the object that had caught their attention. There, near the mouth of the Scheldt River along the eastern edge of the English Channel, in the rippling black, the men on the small vessel realized what they’d seen.
It was a body.
Though the decomposition was ghastly, the sailors noticed the fine quality of the clothing that still wrapped the body. Pulling the remains alongside the boat, they plucked four items from the pockets of the deceased before releasing the rotting corpse back into the waves: a coin purse, a penknife, an eyeglass case, and an enameled pillbox. The steamer then made its scheduled call to the Dutch port city of Vlissingen, where the crew reported the discovery and turned over the items.
Harbor officials immediately wondered if the report from the Coertzen
could be connected to the missing person case that had been in the headlines of newspapers in every major city in Europe and America. Officials sent word to the missing man’s son, who arrived in Vlissingen from Germany the next day. As soon as he saw the items, Eugen Diesel confirmed that they belonged to his father, Rudolf.
Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the revolutionary engine that bears his name, had disappeared almost two weeks earlier during an overnight crossing of the English Channel on his way from Belgium to London. The captain of the passenger ferry had reported Herr Diesel missing at sea, in international waters where there was no legal jurisdiction and no investigatory authority. Since there was no body, there had been no coroner’s report. There was no trial by admiralty nor even a company hearing. There had been no official investigation at all. From the front page of the
New York Times, October 2, 1913.
Rudolf Diesel grew up during an industrial boom. In America it became known as the Gilded Age, in France it was called the Belle Époque. Economies flourished and urban centers developed at unprecedented rates. Through his childhood, Diesel witnessed this expansion from the vantage of an impoverished immigrant. His nomadic family scratched out a living in cities across Europe, until a relative recognized the boy’s gifted mind and offered him a hand up.
At the age of twelve, Diesel took the modest opportunity for an education and made the most of it. With natural ability and the determination of the most desperate, he excelled at his studies, and by his early twenties he inhabited the most revered circle of engineers in Germany. His scientific peers were Edison, Tesla, Bell, Marconi, Ford, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, names that would achieve cultural immortality. These geniuses delivered innumerable advances in science, spawned new industries and destroyed existing ones, have been the subject of books, films, and other tributes, and have been the shoulders upon which countless others have stood. Yet Rudolf Diesel is missing from this list.
Throughout history, the world has often adopted technological advances in ways the inventor never imagined, and certainly never intended. The advances wrought by Diesel and his contemporaries changed their world from a place of decentralized rural economies to a place of mass industry, from the age of steam power to the age of oil, from battles fought at close range between men bludgeoning each other to mechanized warfare. As empires, both political and corporate, applied revolutionary technologies to accelerate their advance, the unintended consequences of an inventor’s brainchild could wreak havoc and terror.
In the time before Diesel’s engine became ubiquitous, the great battleships such as the British Dreadnought
and the great passenger ships like the Lusitania
were equipped with steam engines. The steam technology pioneered by James Watt was as old as America and was the genesis of the Industrial Revolution. Shipbuilders installed a giant boiler filled with water, a coal-burning furnace stoked by teams of men to turn the water to steam, the steam pressure turned the gears of the engine, and finally a chimney and funnel that released black towers of smog from the coal furnace. It was rudimentary technology. A ship “raising steam” from the cool water in the boiler of an idle engine took hours to get under way, and the tons of coal needed to feed the furnace took up valuable cargo space. The dozens of men living on the ship to shovel the coal took up more space and needed to be fed as well. The massive and inefficient engines required the ships to hop from port to port around the globe to acquire more coal, announcing their advance with a smoke-stained sky visible for a hundred miles.
The Diesel engine didn’t require hours to boil water. It operated immediately from a cold start. Nor did it require teams of men to stoke the fires, but simply drew liquid fuel automatically from a tank. The compact engine had no boiler, no furnace nor chimney apparatus at all. Diesel burned a viscous fuel that had no fumes, was safe to store, and the engine consumed its fuel so efficiently that a ship could circumnavigate the globe without stopping to refuel, and it did so with no discernable exhaust to give away the ship’s presence on the horizon. What’s more, the fuel for a Diesel engine came from the natural resources that were abundant nearly everywhere. Diesel’s design was a quantum leap forward in humankind’s ability to convert a substance into power. His engine became the most disruptive technology in history.
Diesel intended for his compact, safe, and efficient engine to lift up rural and urban economies alike, to do the work previously done by the backs of men, to advance the quality of life for all. But his intention was not to be.
When Rudolf Diesel went missing in 1913, the major newspapers from New York to Moscow ran front-page stories about the great scientist’s disappearance. Though suicide by drowning was the working theory, the press also advanced the theory of foul play, and named two of the most famous men on the planet as the prime suspects.
One theory pointed to the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his agents, hypothesizing that the kaiser was so enraged by Diesel’s rumored business dealings with the British that he had ordered the inventor’s murder. One headline read, “Inventor Thrown into the Sea to Stop Sale of Patents to the British Government.”
The other high-profile person who some suggested could be behind Diesel’s death was the world’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller and his cohorts viewed Diesel’s revolutionary technology—an engine that didn’t require gasoline or any product derived from crude oil—to be an existential threat to their business empires. Another headline claimed that Rudolf Diesel was “Murdered by Agents from Big Oil Trusts.”
In death, Rudolf Diesel, the genius inventor, was at the center of a great mystery. Only one year earlier, in 1912, major figures on the world stage had lauded the emergence of Diesel’s game-changing technology. Thomas Edison pronounced the Diesel engine “one of the great achievements of mankind.” Winston Churchill, an early admirer and advocate of Diesel motors, declared a new class of Diesel-powered cargo ship to be “the most perfect maritime masterpiece of the century.” Now Rudolf Diesel, the man whom the famed British journalist W. T. Stead described in 1912 as “the great magician of the world,” was gone.
In an industrial age nothing moves without a motor. It is the beating heart of nations, and no inventor was more disruptive to the established order than Rudolf Diesel. The terrible irony is that Rudolf Diesel abhorred the societal evolutions that his engine wrought. He opposed economic centralization to urban centers, he despised global dependence on the oil monopolies, and he loathed mechanized warfare. His aim from the start had been to invent a compact and economical source of power to revitalize the artisan class and liberate the factory workers of the Industrial Age. He envisioned an engine that burned the natural resources that nearly all countries possessed, and did so cleanly, ridding the earth of smogging pollutants.
The story of Rudolf Diesel’s effort to change the world is one of the most important of the twentieth century, yet most people know little about it. His engine has persisted and thrived through the decades, and incredibly, the fundamental concept of the engine’s design is practically the same today as the engine Rudolf first unveiled in 1897.
But the man seems deliberately scrubbed from history, so much so that Diesel is often misspelled with a lowercase “d.” When has Ford been spelled with a lowercase “f”? Chrysler or Benz?
Today, people around the world pass within a few yards of the word Diesel
many times each day: written on the side of a passenger train, a marine engine, at a fueling station, or on one of the five hundred million Diesel motor vehicles traveling the roads.I
But few know that the word refers to a person. That he started out an impoverished immigrant. That he seized a sliver of opportunity to escape London’s slums. That he believed in the rigors of capitalism, and also stood for peace, equality, the artisan class, a clean environment, and humane working conditions in an era of increasing exploitation. That he believed an engineer had a dual role as both a scientist and social theorist.
Diesel’s genius set him on a collision course with an emperor and a tycoon. The result of this collision changed the course of the Great War and the fate of the modern world, yet history has failed to recognize that these figures are intertwined. Four people are key to understanding the quarter century leading up to the Great War: John D. Rockefeller, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Winston Churchill, and—overlooked until now—Rudolf Diesel. By walking the paths of these men in the decades before the war and connecting facts previously thought to be unrelated, a shroud of mystery dissolves to reveal the truth about Rudolf Diesel’s fate.
On September 28, 1913, the day before he disappeared, Diesel penned a letter to his wife, Martha. In his final hours before boarding the passenger ferry Dresden
bound for London, he wrote “Do you feel how I love you? I would think that even from a great distance you must feel it, as a gentle quivering in you, as the receiver of a wireless telegraph machine.”
One day later, Diesel was gone. While his disappearance and the eventual discovery of his body were front-page news for a time, earth-shaking events were unfolding that would push all else aside. It was the eve of a global conflict that would see thirty-two nations declare war and claim forty million casualties. Investigators ceased to pursue the peculiar actions of the players involved in Diesel’s last days, the press failed to resolve the conflicting news reports in the weeks after his disappearance. The outbreak of brutal calamity only months after Diesel’s presumed suicide demanded attention to the exclusion of nearly everything else. And the world forgot about Rudolf Diesel.
- I. WardsAuto estimates there were 1.4 billion automobiles in the world as of 2020, approximately 35 percent of these are Diesel. This excludes off-road and heavy machinery, almost all of which are powered by Diesel.