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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY SEVEN The Death of Rudolf Diesel

We had a treat last night. The Race Marshal roared us down to Ottobeuren, some 50 miles to the south of Augsburg. Here stands the ongoing community of a Benedictine Abbey founded in 764 AD. This important religious house was accorded the status of Imperial Abbey - making it virtually a separate kingdom, answerable directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, and making the Abbot a member of the Imperial Diet. At its peak, the Abbey was, in effect, a kingdom of 100 square miles with some 10,000 people - all subject to the Abbot.

We went to see and hear the three organs – actually, one is a double organ made in the eighteenth century by Karl Joseph Riepp, extraordinary and deserving its reputation as the most beautiful in the world.

the rococo interior of the basilica at Ottobeuren (c)wikicommons

Appropriately, supper was very simple. The Abbey is in the Allgäu, the beautiful southern region anchored by the Bavarian Alps. In the mountains, they produce a really fine cheese -the yellowish Allgäuer Bergkäse. These cheeses are pressed for a day and then soaked in a bath of brine for another day before being left to mature for at least four months. So supper was bread, slices of Bergkäse and a glass of heavily-malted Maibock.

Our suppertime quiz – name ten organ builders – led to a more general quest for the most famous surname in the world. Excluding religion leaves a number of frontrunners: the Race Marshal went for Heraclitus (she lives in a different world) but I thought Diesel. My choice was undoubtedly influenced by Rudolf Diesel's connection with Augsburg, and by a continuing fascination with the way his life ended.

Rudolf Diesel (c)wikicommons

Rudolf Diesel's family were originally from Augsburg but moved to Paris where there was work to be had in the leather trade. They were so poor that when Rudolf was born in 1858, he was immediately given away to a farming family - another example of informal 'child circulation'. Rudolf did come back before his first birthday but the family remained poor: while still a small child, he had to push a wheelbarrow through the streets of Paris delivering his father's work.

In 1870, the family, being German, was obliged to run from the French as the Prussian Army advanced on Paris. They went to London where Rudolf spent a year at an English school. At the age of 12, he was packed off to Augsburg to live with his uncle, who taught maths. Now Rudolf's intellectual development had begun, and he was to win top honours at the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic in nearby Munich.

His first job was working for Carl von Linde, whose discovery of a refrigeration cycle was a boon to brewers, among others, and helped to break the monopoly of the cave brewers of Erlangen. Rudolf was clearly extraordinarily gifted: inspired by von Linde, he became obsessed with fuel efficiency. One early idea was an engine that ran on ammonia; he almost died in the resulting explosion. 1892 saw his breakthrough: he filed his first patent and the following year signed contracts with Krupp in Essen and Maschinenfabrik Augsburg.

Some argue that Rudolf merely developed an idea by an English inventor, Ackroyd Stuart, who had already patented an engine that used compression to ignite fuel. Rudolf certainly simplified Ackroyd Stuart's system by using a pump to compress the air enough to raise its temperature to the point at which fuel, injected into the compressed air, ignites spontaneously.

The advantage of Rudolph's engine over the spark-plug-based engine patented by Karl Benz in 1880 was primarily fuel efficiency. The disadvantage was weight: diesel engines by their nature had to be robust to hold in the compressed air. Rudolph was not worried because he was not competing with Karl Benz: his main rivals were the manufacturers of steam engines, the established power plants of the industrial revolution.

Diesel engines proved immediately successful, and by 1913, some 70,000 had been made. As intended, they replaced steam engines in factories; in 1903, two river boats were fitted with diesels; in 1908, the first truck; in 1912, the first locomotive; and in the same year, the first ocean-going liner, the Selandia (whose successor brought me back from Penang in the 1950s).

You would think that by the eve of the First World War, Rudolf's horizon would have been rosy. But on the night of 29th September, 1913 he jumped, or fell, or was pushed off the night ferry taking him to England. He had enjoyed supper, gone back to his suite, laid his watch on the bedside table and given instructions to be called at 6.15am, in time to dock.

Ten days later, his remains were spotted in the North Sea. The fishermen who found him did not recover the corpse, merely emptied its pockets. The body was seen again a week later, but again not recovered, so there was never a post-mortem and he was only identifiable by the items in the pockets.

The majority view is that Rudolf committed suicide because of impending bankruptcy. A succession of expensive legal cases and a profligate lifestyle had eroded his fortune. Before embarking, he had left with his wife a bag with about one million pounds (in today's money) and instructions that it should remain unopened for seven days. This,apparently, was the only money left – his bank accounts were empty and his business had significant interest payments pending.

A minority believe that he was murdered by oil interests. The efficiency of his engine was well-known, as was another benefit - that diesels could run on a range of combustibles, including oils from vegetables and peanuts. Rudolf himself had even tried using coal dust as fuel.

A third theory is rooted in the growing use of diesel engines in submarines and ships. In 1904, the French had been first to fit one in a submarine; in 1913, the Americans followed suit. The German navy too had developed a specialist diesel for its submarines: was Rudolf murdered by the Germans because he refused to give them exclusive rights? His trip to England, after all, was to negotiate the supply of diesel engines to the Royal Navy.

A recital on the Riepp organ -

Four minutes in the Allgäu -

A 15 minute biopic of Rudolph Diesel -

Day of the Diesels -

Johnny Diesel & The Injectors -

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