September 29, 1913 – The mysterious death of Rudolph Diesel

On this day in 1913 the man credited with inventing the diesel engine disappeared and was not seen alive again, leading to several conspiracy theories. Paris born Rudolf Diesel was the second of three children of Bavarian immigrants living in France. In 1870, at the age of 12, the family was forced to leave Paris due to the Franco-Prussian war. His family went to London and began to settle but before the war ended Rudolph’s parents sent him to stay with an aunt an uncle in Augsburg in order to become fluent in German and to visit the school where his uncle taught mathematics. He ended up staying in Augsburg after experiencing the rush of math and deciding he wanted to become an engineer. He eventually landed a scholarship to the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich. After graduating in January 1880 with the highest educational honors in his class he began to work with a former professor, Carl von Linde, in Paris. They were designing and constructing a modern ice and refrigeration plant, of which Diesel would later become director of. A decade later Diesel moved with his now wife and three kids to Berlin in order to assume management of Linde’s corporate research firm. In the years that Diesel worked for his former teacher he amassed several patents in the field of refrigeration. However, his employer contract stated he could not use these benefits outside of his work for Linde, so he decided to move into other fields. After experimenting with steam he built an ammonia vapour steam engine, which later blew up, leading to a long stay in the hospital and longstanding health and eyesight problems. Craving better fuel economy Diesel started to design a new engine based on thermodynamic principles and the constraints of wasted efficiency. Diesel developed a compression-ignition engine in which fuel was injected at the end of compression, causing it to ignite due to the high temperatures of compression. He received patents for his design in Germany, the US and several other countries. On the night of September 13, 1913 Diesel was traveling from Dresden to Antwerp via steamship. Following dinner aboard the ship Diesel requested to be called awake at 6:15 the following morning. When a person went to wake him he was nowhere to be found. His bed was not slept in and his nightshirt was laid on neatly on the bed. His watch was on the vanity and his hat and overcoat were found tucked neatly beneath the afterdeck railing. Ten days later a boat spotted a body in the North Sea. It was badly decomposed and was not kept onboard, but the sailors did take an I.D. card, pocketknife and other personal items, thus identifying it as Diesel. A few days later another boatman found the body but also left it overboard. Before the trip Diesel left his wife Martha a bag with directions to not open it until the following week. Inside she found 200,000 German marks, about $1.2 million today, along with financial statements showing their bank accounts had been emptied. In Diesel’s diary, which was found on the ship, a cross was drawn for September 29, indicating death. There are several theories regarding his death. While his biographers assume that suicide is most plausible, there are cases (conspiracy theories) that business and military interests in Diesel’s work could provide motive for murder. pic:Diesel c. 1900

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