In the late nineteenth century, the standard engine was steam-powered, dangerous, and inefficient. Unsatisfied with them, an engineer named Rudolf Diesel set about developing a better engine. His innovative approach was to compress the air in the combustion chamber so much that its temperature rose dramatically, and then inject fuel into the chamber. The high temperature of the compressed air caused the fuel to ignite without the need for a spark plug.
Originally fueled by biodiesel, his first models were so large that they could only be used for industrial applications. By 1910, ocean-going ships and submarines were routinely outfitted with high efficiency diesel engines. It took a number of improvements to the combustion chamber and the injection system before the engines could be significantly reduced in size.
Once these improvements were made there were an explosion of new diesel vehicles. 1922 saw the first diesel powered tractor. In 1923, the first diesel trucks were produced in Berlin. It wasn’t until 1929, though, that an inventor named Clessie Cummins created a diesel powered auto, a Packard. However, as he did not display the car until 1938 credit is sometimes given to Mercedes Benz’s Type 260D, built in 1936.
The stock market crash of 1929 reduced interest in the new engine, however, as consumers everywhere were forced to tighten their belts. In order to stimulate interest, Cummins used diesel cars to set speed and fuel efficiency records. The 1940s and 50s saw the development of air cooling and the turbo diesel engine. However, it was not until the energy crisis of the 1970s that the public truly embraced the fuel-efficient diesel. Today, with skyrocketing fuel prices once again dominating the economy, diesels might become even more important for their ability to burn cheap, sustainable biodiesel fuel.