A Brief History of the Diesel Engine

The diesel engine is a large part of the industrial and automotive world. Looking back, it is impressive to see how it started and grew to become the product that it is today. To learn how the diesel engine got where it is today, take a look at the material we have provided below. Hopefully, our explanation covering a brief history of the diesel engine will give you everything you need to know and more about this type of engine. Knowing the history behind an invention always brings some appreciation, as well as much knowledge and education!

The Beginning

There’s no better place to start than the beginning. The story starts when German engineer, Rudolf Diesel, saw the need for a new engine after noticing that the steam engine was not as efficient as it could be. Not only did the steam engine use a lot of coal, but it was also expensive to operate. Smaller companies could not afford steam engines, therefore making larger companies the only ones that could use them. Diesel decided that this was not acceptable, so he set out to make a new engine.

After looking at his options and experimenting with how to create a new engine, he finally found success in the form of a smaller internal combustion engine. It is safe to say that this engine knocked the steam engine out of the park. However, it was nowhere near perfect and still needed a significant amount of work to reach perfection.

The Middle

While his new engine seemed to hit all the marks that the steam engine did not, it was nowhere close to perfect. Diesel spent several years working on multiple designs and trying to prove his theory that his engine could be 75 percent effective. After spending a significant amount of time, money, and energy on the project, he did not successfully reach his 75% goal. However, the result he did get for his new engine was twice as good as his competitors.

Though the diesel engine had some advantages that the steam engine did not, it was still not clear of all problems. In fact, at times, it was extremely unreliable. Not being reliable led people to be unhappy with the product and avoid buying it. Unfortunately, when this happens, it is never a good sign for a product. This was exactly the case for Diesel himself. His customers’ dissatisfaction with his product led directly to his financial demise.

However, despite this failure, there were a few positives that came out of Diesel’s designs and work. One specifical advantage is that the military found benefits to diesel fuel that encouraged them to use it over other options. Not only was diesel fuel heavier overall, but it was also less likely to explode—a big safety bonus for the military. It was this benefit that led to military submarines eventually using diesel engines.

Rudolf Diesel’s Conclusion

Unfortunately, Diesel passed away in 1913. He was on his way to a business discussion regarding the use of his engines in submarines when he went overboard the ship. It is not clear whether he jumped or was thrown overboard. It is stated, though, that he was having financial difficulties and other emotional struggles at the time.

While this was the end of Diesel’s personal story and work with the diesel engine, it was not the end of the diesel engine itself. Diesel’s invention continued to grow and develop as time went on.

How It Got To Where It Is Today

Over time, engines and generators in factories began using diesel engines. The military also began to use it in a greater capacity, even going so far as to use diesel engines in large military ships. With more inventions and progress in the industrial realm came more advancements for Diesel’s invention. Eventually, the diesel engine was even used in the railroad and trucking industries. Thanks to these advancements, the diesel engine soon became part of the automotive industry as well.

Upon introduction to the automotive industry, applications of the diesel engine began to grow rapidly. Europeans greatly favored diesel-fueled cars. Following this development, the use of diesel engines made its way to the United States, where it began booming as well.


Nowadays, you can’t drive down the road without seeing a diesel-fueled vehicle right next to a gasoline-fueled one. And while there are benefits to driving both, many people still prefer to use diesel engines. In addition to the automotive industry, other industries rely heavily on diesel engines. For this reason, many engineers have dedicated their time and effort to focus on bettering diesel engine emissions and decreasing the greenhouse gases they produce overall. This is a huge advantage for the diesel engine that will keep it as a leading competitor against other engines.

This brief history of the diesel engine has given you a good idea of where this specific engine came from. It started from something very small and grew exponentially until it became what it is today. Reading this outline of the progression and advancements that the diesel engine has undergone truly opens your eyes to how far this invention has come and how much it has benefited society.

With the diesel engine still a huge part of our world, you might have one that you need to care for, maintain, or even repair. If that is the case, you have happened upon the right business for you. Not only can the professionals at ATL Diesel Inc provide you with information like that listed above, but we also have a very large inventory of parts that will help you take the best care of your diesel engine. Take a look at our inventory and our website to see all the Caterpillar engine parts and various other products we have available for purchase.

If you have any questions, feel free to visit our website or give us a call. Our team would love to help you take the best care of your diesel engine possible!

A Brief History of the Diesel Engine