September 29, 1913 – The mysterious disappearance of Rudolph Diesel

In 1870, at the age of 12, Rudolf Diesel and his family fled Paris for London due to the Franco-Prussian war. Before the conflict ended Rudolph was sent to stay with an aunt an uncle in Augsburg, Germany, a trip that would forever change his life’s path. A life that ended under very strange circumstances.

Diesel’s first experimental engine from 1893

After becoming fluent in German and developing an extreme interest in math, thanks to sitting in on his uncle’s class, Rudolph decided to stay in Augsburg to study engineering. He would go on to land a scholarship to the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich.

After graduating in January of 1880 with the highest educational honors in his class, Rudolph began to work under a former professor, Carl von Linde, in Paris. As a team they designed and constructed an ice and refrigeration plant, of which Diesel would later become the director of. A decade later Diesel moved with his wife and three kids to Berlin 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. One of his first engineering attempts outside of refrigeration was to build an ammonia vapour steam engine. Unfortunately it blew up during operational tests, leading to a long stay in the hospital and lifelong health and eyesight problems.

After recovery Diesel started to design a new engine based on thermodynamic principles and the constraints of wasted efficiency, leading to an experimental engine built in 1893. Diesel had 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. For this he received patents in Germany, the US and several other countries. The first successful run of a diesel engine came in 1897, and the engine is now on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Munich. 

First fully functional diesel engine. Diesel commissioned design from Imanuel Lauster. It was finished by October 1896 and tested in early 1897. By Olivier Cleynen – Own work, CC 3.0

On the night of September 29, 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 steward went to wake him, Rudolph was nowhere to be found. His bed was not slept in and his nightshirt was laid 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, pocket knife and other personal items, thus identifying the remains 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.

1936 Mercedes-Benz 260D – the first serially produced diesel car

There are several theories regarding his death. While his biographers assume that suicide is most plausible, there are some (conspiracy) theories that indicate business and military interests in Diesel’s work could provide motive for murder.

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