The Triton

Engine Room

History of diesel, from sperm whale to compression-ignition engine


RED: Motoring

Rhode Island was a thriving British colony in the mid-1700s, and the hub of its wealth was the city of Newport. It was one of the five largest shipping ports in colonial North America, and Newport was where the merchants lived, manufactured and traded commodities.

In 1761, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera formed the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers to help regulate an industry he founded in Newport: the manufacturing of sperm whale oil candles. This oil, extracted from the head of a sperm whale, was highly valued for oil lamps and candles because it burned brighter and cleaner than any other oil, and it didn’t have the stinky odor that whale oil made from blubber had.

Processing sperm whale oil became a leading colonial industry, which Newport kept as a near monopoly until the American Revolution. Just how valuable was this commodity? Today, Brent crude, a major commodities market benchmark for oil, is being sold at $50 a barrel. In 1823, a barrel of sperm oil sold for $200 (adjusted for the value of  today’s dollar) and by 1855 it had risen to more than $1,400 a barrel. Clearly, cheaper alternatives for lighting oil lamps needed to be found.

In 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in Titusville, Penn., he was searching for petroleum. When refined, crude oil produced kerosene, which was an inexpensive alternative to sperm whale oil. But it was John D. Rockefeller who had the vision of kerosene illuminating millions of homes when he bought his first oil refinery in 1863 at the age of 23. Rockefeller soon made his vision a reality, as kerosene became the most valuable product distilled from petroleum, and he made enormous profits from its sale.

The refining process also produced other products from crude oil, such as gasoline, benzene, lubricating oils and waxes. Some of these byproducts were not even given a formal name because no one had yet figured out what to do with them. One of these was called “distillate”, and for every barrel of oil refined, almost one-quarter of a barrel of distillate was produced. Even as canny a mind as Rockefeller’s couldn’t figure out a use for this stuff. Distillate, the unwanted waste from the crude oil refineries, languished for decades without a use.

Enter Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, an engineer living in Berlin, who was interested in designing an engine that was more efficient than the steam engines powering ships and locomotives and the gasoline engines of the newly invented automobile. In 1893, Diesel published the treatise “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today”. His engine used a cylinder to compress air, and as the air was squeezed into a smaller volume, it heated up. Fuel was then sprayed into this hot air and it burned spontaneously. His design was called a compression-ignition engine, and for the next four years Diesel tinkered with his engine and the best fuel to run it. He tried fuel made from coal dust and even peanut oil in his quest for the highest power per gallon.

Finally, when he displayed his completed engine at the Munich Exhibition of 1898, it was fueled by that orphan byproduct called distillate. It has been called diesel fuel ever since, and the compression-ignition engine is now commonly known as a diesel.

By 1912, more than 70,000 diesel engines were in use worldwide, powering factories and generators. Ships and locomotives were just being introduced to that form of power, and submarines would soon follow. Rudolf Diesel became a millionaire from licensing his patents around the world.

On Sept. 29, 1913, Diesel boarded a mail ship in Antwerp for a night crossing of the English Channel to London to attend a business meeting the following day. After dinner, he retired to his cabin at about 10 p.m., and was never seen again. Ten days later, a body was discovered floating in the North Sea so badly decomposed it could only be identified by the clothes and the items in its pockets. It was Rudolf Diesel. By that time, his wife had already opened a bag Diesel had given her before he left for London. In it were 200,000 German marks in cash and bank statements for accounts that were just about empty. They were facing bankruptcy due to his risky investments, and his death was ruled a suicide.

At the time, many people also speculated he was murdered by coal barons, oil interests or perhaps German agents who wanted to stop the sale of diesel engines for use in British submarines.

Whatever the cause of Diesel’s demise, his legacy is something to ponder while you pass the time as diesel fuel is being bunkered aboard your yacht.

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in yachting for almost 25 years. Contact him through

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