Paris, 1900, the city was abuzz with energy.
At the Exposition Universelle that summer, fairgoers were captivated by the Ferris wheel, awed by the Palais de l’Ectricité and amused by Thomas Edison’s “moving boardwalk.” Among all the glitz sat an unassuming machine, far less glamorous, but ultimately much more impactful to a modernizing world.
That machine, the diesel engine, would prove to be one of the most important innovations of the 20th century and would transform global commerce.
Rudolf Diesel introduced his engine to the public at the fair by running it on peanut oil. His experimentation with peanut oil marked him as one of the first to test what is now known as a biofuel. He would win the fair’s Grand Prize for his innovation.
The military would be the proving ground for the diesel engine. Immediately following the exposition, governments started using his engine in submarines and military ships, bringing Diesel a small fortune.
Diesel was a visionary. The combustion engine predates Diesel’s invention, but he wanted to create something that could outperform its predecessors.
Unlike a gasoline engine, which starts with a spark, diesel engines start through air compression, which heats the engine to ignite the fuel. The diesel engine is more durable and efficient than other engines – it runs longer, on less fuel, and is easily turbocharged, making it more popular in large vehicles and machines. Using a diesel engine and fuel can add 20 percent to a vehicle’s mileage.
The diesel engine was instrumental in shaping today’s modern world. It would debut in automobiles in 1930, with a car trip from Indianapolis to New York City 17 years after the inventor’s death. This demonstration showed the engine’s functionality as a long-distance powerhouse.
Since then, the engine has been paramount in powering millions of vehicles, from tanks in World War II to trains across continents and ships across the oceans. From 1951 to 1960 the United States replaced 40,000 steam-powered locomotives with 27,000 diesel locomotives, which outperformed the trains they replaced.
Diesels have revolutionized global commerce as well. As energy expert Vaclav Smil notes, they have made ocean shipping the cheapest mode of long-distance transport. According to Smil, that fact makes the diesel engine one of the “two prime movers of globalization” (along with gas turbines that make jet propulsion possible).
Not only are diesel engines used in vehicles, but they also power buildings, industrial facilities and many farming machines. Entire city infrastructures rely on them.
One hundred and seventeen years after that World’s Fair, the diesel engine continues to play a pivotal role in moving most of the world’s goods around the globe. That’s quite a bit more impressive than the Ferris wheel, or that moveable sidewalk at the airport.