Diesel fuel has an interesting origin because it was ignored as garbage for decades. Instead of seeing it as a valuable source of fuel, it was thrown away as an unusable byproduct of petroleum refining for more than 40 years. Etymology resources cite the term diesel as first being used as an adjective in 1894. The word diesel was borrowed from Rudolf Diesel’s last name because of a revolutionary engine that he designed. Some historians speculate that coal industry leaders murdered Diesel because his engine blueprint was reworked to use diesel fuel.
Locomotive History Links to Diesel Fuel
Most locomotives with steam engines manufactured in the 1800s used coal as the primary fuel. Due to the extreme efficiency of locomotives as transportation for mining companies, engineering improvements for these early models were investigated throughout the 1800s. Building large engines to move a heavy load meant high-temperature fires needed to be produced. Other fuels, like peanut oil, were investigated as high-energy sources, but the efficient new diesel engine and diesel fuel would soon dominate the early 1900s industrial market.
Pre-history of Diesel Fuel
Scientist James Young built the first oil refinery in Bathgate, Scotland, in 1851. In the early days of petroleum refining, the primary objective was extracting burnable paraffin for lamps. Soon after, kerosene was a common product of mid-1800s oil refining. For decades, diesel was an unwanted byproduct or distillate of this crude oil refining, but it was not considered important and called diesel fuel until 1894. Before it was coined as diesel fuel, it was referred to as “distillate.” In Australia, diesel fuel still goes by the term distillate. When it was named in 1894, it was due to Diesel inventing the diesel engine and using this distillate to power it.
Diesel Moves from Unusable Byproduct to Prominence
When Diesel patented the compression-ignition engine in 1892, it was an engineering breakthrough because the fuel did not need to be externally ignited. This engine design has been perfected over the years, and is still used in modern times. At first, Diesel attempted to design the engine to work with powdered coal, ammonia, or peanut oil, but found diesel fuel was the best match. To make the engine work, diesel is compressed to a high temperature to ignite the fuel inside a cylinder. When the combustion occurs, it moves a piston and causes the motor to activate. In addition to being successful in creating this engine for smaller loads, the design quickly evolved to take on large ones. Within 20 years of its invention, the diesel engine was being applied to large freight trucks, tractors, trains and ships.
Did Fear of Diesel Fuel and Engine Instigate Murder?
Today, industries throughout the world rely on diesel fuel to operate. Before diesel fuel and the diesel engine gained prominence in the early 1900s, coal was the primary source of industrial power. Due to the popularity of Diesel’s engine and fuel source, it is speculated that this lead to his demise. Some historians speculate that coal moguls, fearing their industry would become irrelevant and lose profits, orchestrated Diesel’s mysterious English Channel death in 1913. In the end, the coal moguls were right. The diesel engine and diesel fuel shaped a future that led to a decline in coal usage.
- Etymology Online: Diesel
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Locomotive
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Diesel Fuel
- MIT.edu: Diesel Engine
- Royal Society of Chemists: RSC Honors Forgotten Scottish Scientific Hero
- Crude Reality: Petroleum in World History; Brian Black
- Studies in Early Petroleum History; RJ Forbes
- American Railroads; John Stover
- History.com: Inventor Rudolf Diesel vanishes
- Icons of Invention: The Makers of the Modern World from Gutenberg to Gates; John Klooster
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images