Evolution of Diesel Engines Through the Years

Oh, how our society would be different if there was no diesel engine in existence. The present-day era would never have known how the efficient diesel engine contributed to the lower cost of consumer goods if all we had to rely on were vehicles powered by gas.

Diesel engines are more cost effective to run than gasoline. This makes them the obvious choice as power sources for product transportation vehicles such as ships, trains, and big rigs.

Simple economics is at work here – the cheaper it is to get goods from one location to another, the less expensive the end product is. Thanks to diesel engines, we can benefit in many ways.

Rudolf  Diesel
In February of 1893, Rudolph Diesel patented the design that now bears his name. The patent title was long and involved, filed as “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat – Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today” – What a mouthful!

The first prototype test took place in 1893 and was an utter failure. Undaunted, Diesel continued looking for the perfect design and testing as he went along. Finally, in 1897 there was a successful test with an efficiency of just over 26%.

While this number may not seem high by today’s standards, consider that the efficiency of the best steam engines at the time was only 10%.

Until 1900, Rudolph spent his time licensing to manufacturers, tweaking the original design, and constructing various prototypes.

Unfortunately for Diesel, he did not live long enough to see the true impact his invention was having. He died under mysterious circumstances when he reportedly drowned in 1913.

The 1900s
In the early part of 1900, trains between San Francisco and New York hauled heavy loads frequently. The journey often lasted upwards of six months. All of that changed during the 1920s, when the Intercontinental Railroad made the switch to diesel engines, reducing travel time to a mere ten days.

Manufacturers began looking for ways to increase the power of the diesel engine by early in 1905. Their solution to the problem was the manufacture of various parts, including turbochargers. These put out more power by pre-compressing the air to increase the available air mass combustion space.

Shortly following the debut of turbochargers, turbo intercoolers started to make an appearance. They worked to increase air density by cooling down the air expelled from the turbocharger.

Evolution of Diesel Engines Through the Years Picture: Black and red working steam engine.

The biggest milestone for diesel technology to date at this point came from a patent submitted by Prosper L’Orange, a German engineer. He designed what we now call the pre-combustion chamber.

What made his invention so notable was the ability to make diesel power mobile, rather than simply a stationary power source. The German patent was granted on March 14, 1909. He did not stop with just this one invention, however.

Several other important diesel engine parts are thanks to the ingenuity of L’Orange. The most important are 1919’s pintle-type injection nozzle and funnel pre-chamber, and 1921’s landmark variable injection pump.

Rudolph’s son founded L’Orange GmbH in 1933. Today, the company is the premier supplier for valves, injector systems, and fuel pumps across the globe.

1916 – 1919
Diesel engine design was the focus of experimentation by International Harvester during this period. By the time 1929 rolled around, they already had injection pumps in development.

Cummins Engine Company was founded in 1919. By experimenting with various uses for the diesel engine over the next ten years, Cummins created the rudimentary diesel automobile.

A collaboration between C.L. Best Gas Traction Co. and Holt Manufacturing in 1925 culminated with the creation of the Caterpillar Tractor Co. They spent many years attempting to use engines in their tractors manufactured by other companies.

When they were ultimately unable to find a match that worked, CAT began their own journey into engine development in 1930.

On December 25, 1929, W.G. Irwin rode in a Packard limo driven by Cummins with a diesel engine mounted on it. This was the first diesel powered automobile in America!

A diesel injection system that manufacturers would be able to use in regular cars seemed to be the next logical step. Already light years ahead of others, Bosch displayed their version in 1936. They are still one of the most popular OEM companies today.

The 1930s
Just when the future of diesel engines was looking bright, along came the 1930s. Engine failure began to happen frequently, and the occurrences were widespread. There seemed to be no way to make an engine capable of lasting longer than a scant three hundred hours.

The biggest problem was power and pressure loss caused by piston rings becoming stuck in their grooves. This occurred as a direct result of combustion by-products forming in the grooves. No one was willing to take the blame, with both refineries and manufacturers each blaming the other.

This led to the discovery that crude oil was full of detergents. Although they occurred naturally, refineries needed to find a way to get them out of the oil completely or come up with an alternative. With the detergents removed from the oil, there would no longer be the build up that was causing such catastrophic losses.

The Shell Oil Co. became the hero with additives to enhance oil properties and quality. After including additives into their oil production, CAT took it to the next level, using these negative experiences to create diesel engine lubricating standards.

The timeline for diesel evolution almost comes to a standstill at this point. Nothing much was done with the technology again until almost 1970.

The ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s
When diesel became the main fuel used by truckers late in the ’60s, car manufacturers also started to look at its potential uses. It would still be many years before any sort of popularity for automobiles with diesel engines arose.

During this period, the concern over what was being emitted into the atmosphere started to take center stage. Scientists were beginning to worry about the ozone layer and postulating that the air may not be safe to breathe. Hence, the term emissions that continued to dominate the scene over the next two decades became a household word.

Evolution of Diesel Engines Through the Years Picture: red truck driving on highway in sunrise surrounded by green fields.

2000 to Present Day
Once the advancements finally started, they continue at breakneck speed right up until today. Engineers and scientists work diligently to make diesel a greener option for consumers and businesses, and to make it, even more, cost effective.

Car dealership lots are full of diesel vehicles and hybrids. They are gaining a huge market share for their many advantages, the best of which is their outstanding fuel economy.

Final Thoughts
The technology employed in the manufacture of diesel engines is constantly being tested and improved upon. Each component is better than the previous version. Where will it go from here?

It is hard to say what is going to come next. Whatever it may be, you can bet it will be a game changer in the engine industry.