But perhaps Rudolf Diesel was in the wrong place at...

But perhaps Rudolf Diesel was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Credit: Adam Young / Wheelbase Media

The diesel engine has been the foundation of industry for the 100 years since its creator took his own life in 1913.

Rudolf Diesel may have been the mysterious man behind the engine, but maybe he was also a little too late for his time.

Three hundred years earlier, Rudolf Diesel might have been a man who painted chapels, wrote inspiring music or sculpted something for a museum located on the banks of the Seine River . . . and revered for all of it.

Instead, Diesel was just another Paris-born boy who grew up to be a linguist, a thermal engineer, a connoisseur of the arts and the inventor of an engine that, to this day, bears his name.

He was a Renaissance man for Victorian times. But perhaps he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He was Michelangelo with a wrench; an inventor who saw himself as a scientific genius: vain; oversensitive; paranoid and underappreciated.

So maybe that's why on that day in 1913, at age 55, he threw himself over the railing of an English Channel steamer after having lost control over his invention, after suffering through the criticism in the German engineering journals, after all he had done. He had done plenty, but he never realized true happiness from any of it.

Diesel seemed to always be on the cusp of combustion, mechanical and emotional.

After an education in England and Munich, Germany, he found his first work as a refrigerator engineer, but his true love was in engine design, a new area of technology during a time when it was breaking out everywhere. Diesel's mind couldn't rest.

After setting up his first shop in 1885, at age 27, he began a 13-year ordeal of creating his engine while working with the Krupp company in Germany.

Within a few years, he produced different types of engines and then, during his finest moment, Diesel outlined the plans for his signature piece. Its simplicity was pure genius; its objective reached into his roots.

Born in 1858 to a father who was a leather merchant, Diesel saw his engine as a tool that was adaptable in size and cost, but also able to use available fuels. It would allow independent craftsmen to avoid having to use expensive, fuel-wasting steam engines. It would help the small businessman try to beat out the big companies.

Realizing the impact of his work, he filed for a patent for his new invention, dubbed the diesel engine, then he nearly died a year later when it exploded in his workshop. Two years later, with patent No. 608,845, the "internal combustion engine" was complete, but the turmoil was just beginning.

Diesel was a man with a shaky disposition but with enormous talents. Though best known for the pressure-ignited heat engines that would bear his name, Diesel was also a well-respected thermal engineer and a social theorist. The combination of all of his work, including royalties and franchise fees, was making him incredibly rich.

By 1898, with his engines used to power pipelines, electric plants, automobiles, trucks and factories around the world, he was a millionaire several times over. But all was not well.

In 1912, some 15 years after the birth of his invention, he was openly criticized for his conventional views about the engine. He saw it as a complete work while others viewed it as a raw work in progress. He turned to promoting the engine instead of working on it, then eventually worked himself into a nervous breakdown by refusing innovation and the help of other engineers around him.

That same year Diesel wrote that few factories were good enough to build his engines and he eventually irritated other engineers and continued to seclude himself from the commercial world.

The more the engine was developed, the farther it seemed to drift from his original idea.

He was troubled by the criticism of his role in creating the engine, and in 1913, vanished from a ship in the English Channel. His body was found 10 days later.

"He threw himself over the rail of an English steamer," wrote Bert Hall, a historian at the University of Toronto.

"... He was despondent and suffering from a form of depression."
Diesel had never recovered from the breakdown he had had about a decade earlier while working to develop his engine, Hall wrote.

A man who had worked to change society, to protect small artisans from big business, became a victim of his own success. A man who was a visionary became clouded by the uncertainty of his own progress. And a man who longed for acceptance, ultimately only had the test of time as his closest friend.

The Renaissance man in a wrong time.

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