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Rudolf Diesel’s Death – International Dieselpunk Day 2016

So then, I know I’ve virtually disappeared. NaNoWriMo has literally swallowed me this year. And it’s even not going as well as I’d like. If I’m not doing overtime – as I did all of last week – I hope to tell you all about it in a post very soon.

But lucky you, November is going to be quite an exciting month. First of all: International Dieselpunk Day!

And next week there will be the National Flapper Day (have a look at the sidebar) so be prepared!

Where does the word Dieselpunk come from?

The word dieselpunk was created by Lewis Pollak in 2001 to describe his role-playing game Children of the Sun. It was presented at the time as an essentially fantasy game, with all the usual fantasy races (yes, I’m talking elves and dwarves and all the bunch) and of course magic, but with a level of technology that was very near to the XX century world. Technology worked in quite an obscure way. It wasn’t a world that reminded of the early XX century technology faithfully, because magic had messed up with evolution as we know it. So this world presented a mix of different technology levels and different ways in which magic mixed with technology.

Very essentially, what happens in most of dieselpunk still today.

But why this root: diesel?

That has never been explained, and it’s kind of puzzling because the set seems to refer to a time that comes before what we now consider the diesel era (the late 1910s to early 1950s, with a special interest for the two World Wars), a time that seems to fall neatly into Steampunk, a genre that was souring in the late 1990s.

What we do know is that diesel, of course, refers to the invention of a German engineer, Rudolf Diesel, whose revolutionary engine cause quite a few changes in the Victorian world.

Who was Rudolf Diesel


Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel was born on 18th March 1858 in Paris from a German native family. Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the Diesels were deported to England in 1870, where they settle in London. Financial pressure soon forced them to send young Rudolf back to Germany, where he went to live with relatives in Augsburg, and there he became fascinated with engineering through his frequent visits to the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts.
When the time came, he enrolled in the Technische HochSchule in Munich, and he soon established brilliant scholastic records in engineering. That allowed him to become a protégé of Karl von Linde, whose Paris firm Rudolf joined in 1880.
He also became very interested in the welfare of people. His social commentary was as prolific as his scientific one. In fact, it was probably his social involvement that prompted him to invent his revolutionary engine.

Diesel’s revolutionary invention

In the mid-1800s, the standard petroleum-powered internal combustion engines used everywhere (from industrial machinery to locomotives) were large, expensive and inefficient. Besides, the alternatives (gas and steam engines) were even more wasteful.
Diesel wanted to create an engine that not only was more efficient but could be more adaptable in size and cost, as well as being workable with many different fuels, not just petroleum. He was very aware of the problems caused by petroleum. He had written a book addressing the dangers of petroleum engines, the pollution they produced and the finite nature of the fossil oil they implied.
The engine he had in mind would work with any fuel – including bio-fuel – and be more efficient and therefore less expensive. Hopefully, he would allow independent craftsmen to avoid having to use expensive, fuel-wasting steam engines, and give a chance to small business to try and beat out the big companies’ competition.


While experimenting ammonia as a fuel for a steam engine, Diesel was nearly killed by the explosion caused by the vapours. During his long recovery, he started to work at the idea for a completely new engine, one that would not require a spark to ignite and therefore would work on any fuel.

He patented this idea in 1892. He called it the compression ignition engine, but it would become universally known with his name: the diesel engine. It ignited by introducing fuel into a cylinder full of air that had been compressed to extremely high pressure and was, therefore, extremely hot.

He powered up the first working diesel engine – fueled by peanut oil – on 10th August 1893. It wasn’t perfect, it needed more work over the following years, but Diesel was finally able to present a 25-horsepower, four-stroke, single-cylinder engine in 1897. After being displayed in 1898 Munich Exhibition, Diesel became hugely successful as everything, from marine engines to factories, cars, power generators, trains and assorted mining and oil drilling equipment, switched from the steam to his engine.

His name was recognized anywhere in the world. He became very well-off thanks to his many patents, a titan of invention. Everybody knew him and his work.

So it was a worldwide shock when, in September 1913, he disappeared.

Rudolf Diesel disappears

On 29th September 1913, Diesel was crossing the English Channel on the streamer SS Dresden heading to a meeting in London. He had dinner with his travelling companions, a pleasant night like many others. He retired at 10pm and asked to be wakened at 6am the following day.

But he didn’t appear at breakfast, so his travelling companions went to his cabin and called for him. He didn’t answer. When they finally broke into his room, they found it empty. His bed was untouched, but his watch and nightshirt were laid out as if he was preparing for sleep. A search was conducted onboard, but when the steamer finally reached its destination, there was still no sight of him.

His disappearance became a headline on all papers, and soon new details emerged from the inquest. Although he looked to be very wealthy, he had, in fact, a lot of financial problems due to a few bad investments. By that September 1913, none of his bank accounts contained significant amounts of money and interest he could not afford to pay were due by 1st October.

Before he left on the Dresden, he had left a suitcase with his wife, which contained 20.000 Deutsche Marks, cash that would have been invisible to his creditors.

It also emerged that his health was very poor.

Ten days later, a Dutch tugboat operating in the North Sea by the Norway shore discovered a corpse floating in the sea. It was already very decomposed, and so fish-eaten and bug-infested the crew didn’t want it on board. But they gathered all the personal effects they found on the corpse, objects that were later identified by Diesel’s son as belonging to his father.

By then, Diesel’s death had already been ruled as a suicide.

But what if…?

But there are still doubts about such a conclusion. A cross indeed marked the day of his disappearance in Diesel’s diary, but no goodbye note was ever found.

If it’s true that his finances were in a terrible state, it’s also true that he was travelling to London probably to attend the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing meeting. It has been speculated that he intended to sell his engine technology to a British company, which would have solved many of his money problems. Taking place only a year before the outbreak of WWI, it has been argued that the German government might have wanted to stop him from handing over his expertise to the British.

Rudolf Diesel's Death – International Dieselpunk Day 2016 – Was Rudolf Diesel's death truly a suicide? #history #dieselpunk Click To Tweet

The hypothesis isn’t too farfetched. In the decades before the war, Germany had become a rising power on the European scene, which at that time meant on a global level. That naturally brought her to clash with the already established global power of the time: the British Empire.
Therefore, Germany was hard-pressed to find a way to impose her presence on the global scene and to demand to be considered equal to the British Empire. It was the premise that would lead to World War I.

In 1898, then again in 1900, Germany issued a Naval Bill that pushed his naval production of modern ships to create a flit capable of competing with the powerful British one. The British Crown recognized the challenge and countered with her own building of new ships. That created a naval race that only resolved after the war.

Required to participate in such race many times, Diesel had always resisted because of his believes about social equality. He wanted his engine to be useful to people, not to the war. Still, his engine was soon employed on all submarines. His dire financial situation might have forced him to change his stance, maybe offering his services to the nation who paid the best.

In 1908 an acceleration of the naval race on both sides made the relationship between Germany and Britain even harsher. Is it so unreasonable to think that just one year before the outbreak of WWI, Germany tried with all means to stop a brilliant mind from passing on her enemy’s side?

Rudolph Diesel and Thomas Edison exchange ideas
Rudolph Diesel and Thomas Edison exchange ideas


This Day in History – 23 September 1913: Rudolf Diesel Vanishes
NNDB Traking the Entire World – Rudolf Diesel
New Historian – The Mysterious Death of Rudolf Diesel
Famous Scientists – Rudolf Diesel
Smithsonian – When the Inventor of the Diesel Engine Disappeared
YouTube – Terra X: Das Diesel-Rätsel (Dokumentation)

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "International Dieselpunk Day 2016". The picture shows a night photo of the Chrysler Building.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Rudolf Diesel's Death - International Dieselpunk Day 2016". The picture shows a photo of the first diesel engine.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Diesel-Fueled Fantasy". The picture shows a night photo of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.


  • Anabel
    Posted November 13, 2016 at 11:30

    Fascinating! I knew diesel was named after a real person but knew nothing about him before.

    • Post Author
      Posted November 13, 2016 at 15:15

      I happened upon the German documentary I liked in the notes by complete chance (an Italian version of the complete documentary. The English video above it’s only an extract) and I was hooked by Diesel’s story. I always like stories of passion 🙂

  • Tiyana Marie
    Posted November 13, 2016 at 17:35

    What an interesting story on the man behind the diesel engine! Mysterious, what happened to him… Great post.

    Someone should definitely be writing a dieselpunk novel about this. 😉

    • Post Author
      Posted November 16, 2016 at 22:26

      I think so. There are all the right elements 😉

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