Fuel for a Conspiracy

REVIEW: ‘The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I’

Rudolf Diesel (L) with Thomas Edison (R) in Edison's laboratory (Wikimedia Commons)
January 7, 2024

On October 20, an AI-generated deepfake interview of Greta Thunberg was posted on the German satire site Snicklink. The deepfaked activist advocates for "sustainable tanks and weaponry" along with "biodegradable missiles" and "vegan hand grenades": If you are going to fight a war, she seems to say, do so in an environmentally friendly way.

The minute-long clip is eerily convincing—perhaps because, like all good parody, it’s just a step or two ahead of reality. We already see such non-satirical headlines as "Silent But Deadly: The Case for Electrifying Military Vehicles" in Popular Mechanics.

Unfortunately, the petrochemical engine won’t be replaced easily. Oil is still a critical resource: Ukraine and Russia attacked each other’s oil infrastructure. Venezuela is on the edge of invading Guyana over oil reserves. And the real center of petroleum use is diesel fuel. It powers 90 percent of all globally traded goods through cargo shipping, runs 75 percent of all construction and farming equipment, and pumps 20 percent of all agricultural irrigation water. Even after the 2015 scandal of Volkswagen’s cheating on the EPA’s diesel emissions tests, diesel engines still run the world.

As it happens, the inventor Rudolf Diesel (1858–1913) disliked the military use of his engine, and he expressed support for alternative fuels. The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I recovers for readers the life of the man who invented the Diesel cycle (to say nothing of his forlorn patent for ice cubes).

As Douglas Brunt tells the story, Diesel was a German engineer who devoted himself to solving engine inefficiencies, and his invention allowed for a new way to generate power. In gasoline engines, a spark plug makes a literal spark in the midst of a pressurized mixture of air and fuel. The fuel ignites, and the thermal energy created is then converted to mechanical motion. By contrast, the diesel engine doesn’t need a spark. Instead, air is compressed, which raises its temperature, and combustion begins spontaneously when fuel is injected into the hot environment.

While this may seem a minor difference, it made for major changes in machinery. Fire trucks, trains, tanks, cruise ships, and emergency generators wouldn’t be as feasible as they are today without Diesel’s invention. Unlike the steam power of the time, Diesel’s engine allowed the machines it powered to begin work immediately, not having to wait to build up a fire. And unlike internal combustion engines running on gasoline, the diesel engine proved more efficient in energy usage and could run on fuels (including non-petroleum fuels such as peanut oil) that had a lower octane rating.

Brunt lays out the path by which Diesel came to his invention. Fourteen years after scribbling an idea in his university lecture notebook, Diesel published his theoretical calculations of a new heat engine in 1891. During the first test in 1894, the engine immediately exploded, sending shrapnel screeching past him into the workshop walls. Undeterred, Diesel kept on—the more confident the fewer additions were made to the "artwork of scars across the laboratory walls."

Diesel’s invention came at nearly a perfect time at the end of the 19th century. Tensions between European nations were increasing. The Germans were preparing to challenge the British fleet, and the diesel engine would occupy a central place in World War I when it began in 1914. In addition to improving naval ship and airship designs, the engine made possible the first real stealth weapon: the submarine. The wide range of potential fuels even put Diesel at odds with John D. Rockefeller, whose kerosene empire had just been kneecapped by electric illumination.

What follows in the book is a woven narrative of Diesel, Winston Churchill, Kaiser Wilhem II, and Rockefeller, ending with Diesel’s mysterious disappearance during a voyage on the SS Dresden on September 29, 1913. His luggage was in his room untouched, and his notebook with the current date written on the page was left on the desk. According to Brunt, Diesel had been acting strangely in the months before the trip—perhaps knowing something would happen.

The commonly accepted conclusion is that Diesel committed suicide, but suspicions still linger of murder by the German government (because he was helping the British with their warship engines) or by a hitman hired by Rockefeller. Brunt offers his own theory: Diesel didn’t die on the boat. A British deception operation faked Diesel’s death to spirit him to work in Britain’s Canadian engine works. To which the reader’s response will be: interesting, possible, but more speculative than proved.

In Brunt’s telling, Diesel leads a surprisingly exciting life. Our German inventor bumps elbows with the beer makers Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser, automobile manufacturers Henry Ford and Karl Benz, and scientists Thomas Edison and Alfred Nobel. Diesel, Brunt explains, was scheduled to be on the Titanic but canceled the trip because of an engagement with Busch.

A few of the characters in the book should have stayed minor. Brunt spends too many pages telling us about people not essential to Diesel’s story, and he dwells at times on unimportant events rather than building up to the mysterious disappearance. Still, Brunt has an eye for telling details. Diesel played piano nearly daily to honor the early death of his sister Louise. He published a treatise on how to solve the social dilemmas of the Industrial Age (titling it Solidarismus), which he thought would be more important than the engine he invented. He wanted to name the engine "Excalibur," after King Arthur’s sword, but settled for "Diesel" once his wife, Martha, rejected his first choice.

Douglas Brunt is the former CEO of a cybersecurity firm and author of three novels, which puts a biography of Rudolf Diesel a little out of his bailiwick. And the result is nowhere close to such superior accounts of oil and engines as The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (2008) by Daniel Yergin or Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2015) by Andres Malm.

Still, as Brunt mentions, even The Prize barely gives a nod to the immense role Diesel played. The inventor is far too little known, and The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel is right to focus on him. The book also reminds us that eliminating fossil fuels in favor of renewable-energy alternatives is foolhardy, for now. Without Diesel’s invention, the essential infrastructure of modern life—food production, commercial distribution, transportation—wouldn’t be possible. Despite the headlines—real or deepfake—diesel is here to stay.

The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I
by Douglas Brunt
Atria Books, 384 pp., $28.99

Matthew Phillips is a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University.