How the Diesel Engine Changed the World

Transportation Technologies

Transportation technologies have helped to shape the modern world. Throughout the course of human history, the ability to move from one place to another has played a vital role in global development. Mobility as a whole has been crucial for human development. While humanity has attempted to develop the means to travel long distances in nearly every era, the creation of the internal combustion engine helped to bring this vision to life. When paired with fossil fuels, the concept of developing a self-propelling vehicle was turned into a reality. A wide array of scientists and engineers contributed to the development of the first internal combustion engine. However, the creation of the diesel internal combustion engine ultimately revolutionized the world in a way that has been unparalleled by gasoline engines.

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The Internal Combustion Engine

The creation of the original internal combustion engine wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions made by numerous engineers, scientists, and researchers over a span of many decades. John Barber developed the first rotary turbine in 1791. This invention was followed up by Thomas Mead’s patented gas engine, which was developed only three years later. During the same year, Robert Street created a single vertical internal combustion engine that was powered by a coal-fired furnace. The coal furnace provided the energy needed to create vertical piston movement via a rocking beam and a connecting rod. This design was deemed as the first commercially productive internal combustion engine in England. After Street’s design was found to be somewhat successful, American inventor, lawyer, and engineer John Stevens created a slightly revised version of the engine in 1798. Stevens’ rendition of the internal combustion engine eventually made its way to power the first steam locomotive in America, as well as the first steam-powered ferry.  

During the 1800s, efforts to revolutionize the internal combustion engine picked up steam. In 1807, French engineers Joseph Nicéphore Niépcen and Claude Niépce invented a unique prototype engine known as the Pyréolophore. The Pyréolophore was a unique design because it incorporated a process that created controlled dust explosions with a variety of experimental fuels. The engine was ultimately used to power a boat up and down the Saône River in France. As Joseph Nicéphore Niépcen and Claude Niépce were developing their prototype, a Swiss inventor named François Isaac de Rivaz was also developing a version of the internal combustion engine that could be ignited by an electric spark. In 1808, Rivaz placed a hydrogen-powered engine with an electric ignition into an early version of an automobile. His engine used a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen without the need for in-cylinder compression, a connecting rod, or a crank. While Rivaz is often credited as being the creator of the first automobile, it was never commercially successful.

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The Modern Engine

After nearly four more decades of additional primitive designs for the internal combustion engine, Italian engineers Felice Matteucci and Eugenio Barsanti are credited with developing the first modern internal combustion engine in 1853. These designers worked collaboratively to create an engine that could serve as a manufacturable item that could be replicated around the world. By 1863, Matteucci and Barsanti had employed Bauer & Company of Milan, Italy as the home of their engine manufacturing operations. One of the main selling features of their engine design was the efficiency. Matteucci and Barsanti’s engine was immensely more efficient than earlier versions of the steam engine.

Following the success of the Italian engineers, Gottlieb Daimler, Nicolaus Otto, and Wilhelm Maybach successfully developed a four-stroke gasoline engine in 1876. The development of the four-stroke engine, along with the development of Karl Benz’s two-stroke engine in 1879, provided the foundation for the future of automobile travel. By the 1880s, gasoline became the preferred choice for the internal combustion engine, as it served as a much more practical fuel to power automobiles instead of previous coal and gas mixtures. The three distinct aspects of gasoline internal combustion engines are their need for an electric sparking ignition, their low rates of compression, and the need for very lightly refined liquid gasoline (Smil, 2010). However, one of the downfalls of gasoline engines is the relatively low level of combustion efficiency. This type of engine uses a volatile mixture of gas and air that causes explosive force when ignited within an engine cylinder. After ignition, the explosive mixture creates the force to power an automobile. Although, much of the efficiency is lost through heat transfer.

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Rudolf Diesel’s Engine

In an attempt to address some of the inefficiencies of gasoline engines, German mechanical engineer and inventor Rudolf Diesel set out to design a new engine after graduating at the top of his class from the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich. Diesel first started to experiment with steam engines by conducting research into fuel efficiency and thermal efficiency. In one infamous experiment, Diesel added ammonia vapor to a steam engine, which subsequently exploded and nearly killed him. After numerous other failed experiments, Diesel was granted a patent in 1892 for a new engine that would end up bearing his own name. Rudolf Diesel’s engine was much more efficient than a traditional gasoline engine. One of the main efficiencies was gained through the ignition process. In a gasoline engine, compressed fuel and air are ignited via a spark plug. Diesel engines only compress air rather than the fuel, which allowed the fuel to instantaneously ignite without the use of a spark plug.

In addition to being a more efficient engine, diesel engines have the ability to run off of heavier and less refined fuel than gasoline engines. This heavier fuel has become known as diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is cheaper to refine and less volatile in terms of its ability to explode when coming in contact with a source of ignition. This made diesel fuel ideal for military vehicles. In 1904, Rudolf Diesel landed a major contract with France to put his engines within French submarines. By 1908, the first commercial truck was given a diesel engine. As a result of extremely high cylindrical pressures within a diesel engine, the first models of Rudolf Diesel’s engines were too large and heavy for smaller vehicles. While modern diesel engines can now be adapted to smaller vehicles with ease, the diesel engine has retained a dominant position within the world’s commercial vehicle market. As a result of a diesel engine’s ability to produce more power and provide more fuel efficiency, the vast majority of large commercial trucks available today are powered by diesel engines.

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Rapid Expansion

Beginning in the 1920s, the diesel engine began to rapidly overtake the commercial vehicle sector. In the 1930s, trains also started to be converted over to diesel engines from steam engines. By 1939, nearly 25 percent of all ships that were used for global commerce were powered by diesel engines (Harford, 2016). As a result of the high overall compression ratio, a diesel engine produces much more torque than a gasoline engine. Torque is known as a vehicle’s rotating force that is generated through the crankshaft of an engine. The more torque an engine has, the greater the ability for the engine to produce force that can be used to rip out tree stumps, haul large loads of lumber, or move around sand and gravel. From a mathematical perspective, torque is known as force multiplied by distance. While a diesel engine produces more torque, a gasoline engine produces more horsepower. A vehicle with more horsepower than torque is likely to accelerate faster than a vehicle with a significant amount of torque.

A diesel engine’s ability to produce torque has fueled the rise in massive cargo ships, which have become essential for global trade, development, and globalization in general. In his book, Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines, Professor Emeritus Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba argues that the development of diesel engine technology has provided human civilizations with the ability to develop much more robust economies than would be possible with only gasoline and steam engines available for commercial vehicles and ships. Without the rise of efficient and reliable intercontinental maritime shipping and travel, the development of a truly interconnected global economy would have been impossible (Smil, 2010).

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Economic Vitality

By the 1960s, the diesel engine had all but eliminated the need for any steam engines within commercial transportation sectors. Besides the greater level of fuel efficiency, diesel engines require less maintenance, which allow them to spend more time on the road without the need for costly engine overhauls. Lower operating costs is one of the main reasons why diesel engines are popular with large vehicle fleets. Nearly, 85 percent of commercial vehicles that are driven over 75,000 miles per year are outfitted with diesel engines (Smil, 2010). According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, diesel is the most important fuel for the U.S. economy. The majority of commercial products sold around the world rely on diesel trucks and trains for transportation. Moreover, most of today’s modern farming, construction, and military vehicles run on diesel fuel. When compared to other fossil fuels, diesel has a greater level of energy density, which offers more useable power per unit of volume. Even with diesel engines being vital to the U.S. economy, only about 20 percent of U.S. petroleum use can be attributed to diesel consumption (EIA, 2019).  

Few people know that diesel engines are also indispensable for the airline industry. At the majority of airports around the world, diesel engines are needed to get jetliners off of the tarmac. Nearly two-thirds of the ground equipment needed to move around airplanes at the world’s busiest international airports are powered by diesel engines (Smil, 2010). When it comes to efficiently moving around massive jumbo jets like the 400-ton Boeing 747 or the 560-ton Airbus A380, diesel pushback tractors are needed to get the job done safely and reliably.

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What Does the Future Hold?

The process for social and economic globalization has been aided significantly by the advent of the diesel engine. Beginning in the 1950s, diesel engines also started to become critical for non-transportation uses such as generators. Many of today’s modern hospitals and large-scale businesses have backup diesel generators that come on in the event of a power outage. Moreover, diesel is the fuel that is most often chosen to generate electricity in remote locations that do not have access to high-voltage power grids. Many islands nations, especially in the Caribbean, rely on diesel fuel to generate electricity needed to power rural electric cooperatives.

While diesel has without a doubt shaped global development, the future of this fossil fuel has recently come into question. How will automakers recover from the clean diesel scandal? Will eco-friendly biodiesel solve the global carbon crisis? Will global policymakers continue to enforce plans to ban diesel vehicles from city centers? These are some of the questions that have yet to be fully answered. As environmentalists and natural resource professionals continue to pressure governments to move forward with initiatives to phase out the production of the internal combustion engine in favor of electric vehicles, some automakers have struggled to find a path forward with diesel technology. The reputation of diesel has struggled in recent years, even after a long history of helping the world achieve greater levels of economic development and growth. With this in mind, some industry professionals still say that diesel will continue to power the global economy for years into the future.


EIA. (2019). “Diesel Fuel Explained.” U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Ferris, R. (2020). “Diesel is on the decline, but don’t count it out yet.” CNBC.

Harford, T. (2016). “How Rudolf Diesel’s engine changed the world.” BBC News.

Reif, K. (2014). “Fundamentals of Automotive and Engine Technology.” Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Smil, V. (2010). “Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines.” The MIT Press.

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