ICBTT2002The 1st International Conference on Business & Technology Transfer Top page in Japanese
Top Rationale Key words Topics Day's program Place Committee Sponsor & supports Program
Lecture Registration form Call for papers E-mail photos 1.Banquet 2.Technical Tour
  ICBTT2004 Technology & Society Division, JSME

Origin of Diesel Engine is in Fire Piston of Mountainous People Lived in Southeast Asia

Masanori OGATA and Yorikazu SHIMOTSUMA

People who live in the mountainous area in Southeast Asia have performed ground-burnt-off cultivation from ancient times in the mountainous region covered by tropical rain forests. It is also carried out widely around the Kalimantan Island even now. Since it rains mostly, the climate of these islands is humid. Therefore, maintenance of a fire is difficult. In these areas, the fire piston was invented at ancient times and it has been used for many years. A piston is quickly driven into a cylinder of small bore and air is compressed. The high temperature generated by it lights tinder at the tip of a piston. Professor Linde of Munchen Technische Hochschule is famous for invention of the refrigerating machine in 1873. He gave a lecture on the Pinang island in Southeast Asia, and got the fire piston as a souvenir. He performed the returning-home-from-abroad report lecture in school. At this time, Professor Linde lit a cigarette with the fire piston. Diesel who was looking at it has sensed that the principle of a fire piston can apply to ignition of an internal combustion engine. Europe of those days was the midst of development competition of an internal combustion engine and an automobile. Diesel did theoretical research about the internal combustion engines. He applied for the patent and obtained at Britain in 1892 and after, at Germany in 1893. Then, he invented the world's first self-ignition internal combustion engine after extraordinary efforts. The principle of a Diesel engine can be said to be in the fire piston that is the tool of a life of the mountainous people lived in Southeast Asia.

Keywords: History of Technology, Fire Piston, Ground-burnt-off for Cultivation, Southeast Asia, Carl von Linde, Rudolf Diesel, Diesel Engine, Internal Combustion Engine, High Thermal Efficiency, Low CO2 Emission, Deutsches Museum, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metier, Science Museum

1. Introduction
The Diesel engine supported the life of human beings as a bearer of a physical distribution, and has played the big role today. Ashore, almost all the buses and tracks are using diesel engines. Instead of a steam locomotive was used in former times, diesel cars and the electric motor vehicles of railroad are in use in the present age. Especially, diesel cars occupy the most. Therefore, most of the transportation is depending on using the diesel engines as the power source. A diesel engine is one of the machine devices that cannot be lacked in a life of human beings.
On the other hand, Nox, SOx and diesel smoke that are contained in the exhaust gas of diesel engines caused the environmental problem. However, they are being sharply reduced by the present technical innovation. From a viewpoint of lower CO2 emission than gasoline engines, compact automobiles loaded on a diesel engine is becoming fairly popular in Europe these days. In this study, authors tried to research how the diesel engine was born.

2. Fire Piston
Authors recollect a thought to a small fire piston. The army captain, Mr. Nakata, was being stationed during World War II in Sumatra of Indonesia. When he was going back to Japan in winter of year 1945, a fire piston shown in figure 1 was given together with a flint stone and a piece of iron to him as a souvenir from the representative of mountainous people of Sumatra. Mr. Nakata died soon after the homecoming. Mrs. Nakata succeeded to the remained goods. The fire piston was donated to authors by her.

Fig.1 Fire piston made in Sumatra ( By donation of Mrs.Nakata )

The size of a fire piston is small with the outer diameter of 17 mm, length of 106 mm, and diameter of a piston of 5 mm. It is the product made of a horn of black water buffalo, and is the excellent good polished up beautifully.
A flint is an ignition implement still old compared with a fire piston, and the size is with diameter of 16 mm and thickness of 5 mm, and is made of flint stone. The size of a piece of iron struck by flint is length of 50 mm and width of 27 mm, and its thickness is 4 mm. Authors would like to donate to an appropriate museum someday.
One of Authors visited Indonesia on December 1988 for the site survey of the history of technology. At that time, the Indonesia National Museums in capital Jakarta was investigated, and it was confirmed that three fire pistons are being exhibited.
Genealogy and distribution concerned with the technology of bellow that were surveyed by authors' field work and researched from references are shown in figure 2.

Fig.2 Ancient technology of bellow - piston system
(a) distribution(2), (b) ?, Bamboo wind instrument(2), (c) pneumatic pump of Madagascar(3),
(d) fire piston, (d-1) Thailand(3), (d-2) Philippin(3), (d-3) Jawa(3), (d-4) Pinang(4), (e) stirrer of Nepal(2)

The technology of a bellow and piston system(1) in Southeast Asia has mainly been used for ground-burnt-off for cultivation and iron metallurgy since ancient times among the mountainous people belonging to a region of broadleaf tree. Moreover, as shown in figure 2, the stirrer that the mountainous people around the Himalayas, Tibet, or Nepal still mix tea, and makes butter from milk is also related technology as shown in figure 2(e).
On the Madagascar Island near at the eastern end of the African continent in the figure 2, many tribes said to have emigrated from Southeast Asia around the 3rd century reside. The proof is in paddy field, rice growing, canoes with an outrigger, fire piston and some kinds of plants, etc.

3. Invention of Diesel Engine(1)
Carl von Linde is widely known for liquefaction of air, and he obtained a patent of the refrigerating machine for practical use in 1873.

Fig.3 Carl von Linde ( 1842-1934 )
(By courtesy of Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library and The Chemical Heritage Foundation )

He industrialized the research results and founded the base of the huge enterprise group "Linde AG" at present age of Germany in 1879. Moreover, he established the first mechanical engineering laboratory in Germany. When Linde was appointed to a professor of "Theory of Machinery" from 1868 to 1879, the foundation of Thermodynamics Laboratory of the present Technische Universitat Munchen started. The chairman of the present Thermodynamics Laboratory is professor Thomas Sattelmayer (1997-), and he is the seventh of it. Wilhelm Nusselt who is famous for the "Nusselt number" was the third chairman (1925-1952).
The predecessor of the Technische Universitat Munchen is Konigliche Polytechnische Schule in Munchen founded in 1868. The name was changed to the Technische Hochschule Munchen (THM) in 1877, and it became the present name "TUM" from 1970.
Professor Linde was invited to the Pinang Island in Southeast Asia, and he gave a lecture on thermodynamics. He was presented a fire piston as the souvenir. He performed the returning-home-from-abroad lecture in school.
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel was a student of Professor Linde's laboratory in those days, and had helped research of a refrigerating machine. Diesel was looking at that professor Linde lit a cigarette at fire piston at that time. He has sensed that the ignition principle of a fire piston can apply to ignition of an internal combustion engine, because he has already experienced similar operations by pneumatic pump in Technische Hochschule Augsburg at the age of 12.
Professor Linde mentioned Carnot's (Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot [Fr.]. 1796-1832) therem at the lecture of the thermodynamics in 1878. He declared that "For a steam engine, only 6 or 10 % of input energy is converted to effective work. However in the adiabatic change of gases, heat that is generated by compression is converted fully to work." Diesel had written down this lecture on the note firmly.
Afterwards, Diesel was given training at Sultzer GmbH of Switzerland and in order to help Linde's company, he arrived at a new post at birth ground Paris in 1880. He returned to Berlin in 1890 and began theoretical examination about the new thermal engine. Further research was done based on the note of his school days.
The results were entitled the "Theorie und Konstruktion eines rationellen Warmemotors zum Ersatz der Dampfmaschinen und der heute bekannten Verbrennungsmotoren" and was published in 1893. However, review of the work is not said to have been good generally. He got Britain's patent on February 27, 1892. The subject was "A new, efficient thermal engine" and it was written by hand. Subsequently on February 23, 1893, he obtained German patent No. 67207 as shown in figure 5 as "Working method and design for combustion engines". Successively he submitted and obtained correction patent No. 82168 in Germany. These patents were theoretical.
In order that he might manufacture real engine of new system immediately, he resigned Linde's company in 1893. He moved to the Augsburg machine shop (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg). He made a development contract on February 21, and devoted to trial production of effective internal combustion engine. The company was called as "MAN" (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nurnberg) by merger later and is famous for the present world as a diesel engine maker.

Fig.4 Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (1858-1913 )
(By courtesy of the Deutsches Museum, Munchen)

Fig.5 German patent No. 67207 of diesel engine in 1893
(By courtesy of Deutsches Museum, Munchen)

Fig.6 The First Diesel engine in the World
(In 1893. By courtesy of MAN Co., Ltd.)

In those days, he also received financial support from a few businessmen. One of them, Krupp (Gustav Krupp. 1870-1950) was famous for iron manufacture.
The first trial production engine shown in figure 6 was completed at last after breaking through many technical difficulties on July 17, 1893. The specification of the engine is that the total height was 3 m, it had a single cylinder, and its bore was 150 mm, stroke was 400 mm. Upper part of cylinder was made of cast steel, and the lower part was made of cast iron. There was not equipped cooling device. The piston made of cast steel was set in a cylinder. U-type sealing rings made of bronze with a thin section were attached to the piston. The No. 1 engine could not start by itself. As a result of small-scale improvements, independence operation was attained for the first time on August 10 of the same year.
After various improvements were performed, the official operation examination by Moritz Schroter of THM was practiced on February 17, 1897(5). Incidentally, professor Schroter was the second laboratory head inherited after professor Linde. The performance of completed engine had net horsepower of 20 PS, thermal efficiency of 26 %, and mechanical efficiency of 75%. The bore and stroke were 250.35 mm and 398.5 mm respectively. The diesel engine was approved because the engine performance was able to be practical use. However, the weight of a diesel engine had no less than 4.5 tons. The thermal efficiency of a steam engine of those days had only 12%.
In those days, Otto (Nicolas August Otto. 1832-1891) had already invented four-stroke gasoline internal combustion engine with ignition device in 1876. Lightweight was a selling point of this engine and many were used for engines of automobiles.
On April 3, 1885, Daimler (Gottlieb Daimler. 1834-1900) obtained gasoline internal combustion engine of small-type for automobile as German patent No. 34926.
He invented the bicycle with a gasoline engine of the wooden chassis named "Bone Crusher" in 1895. On January 29, 1886, Benz (Karl Friedlich Benz. 1844-1929) registered the tricycle with a four-stroke gasoline internal combustion engine of 0.9 PS as German patent No. 37435.

Fig.7 Nicolas August Otto ( 1832-1891 )(7)

Fig.8 Gottlieb Daimler ( 1834-1900 )(7)

Fig.9 Karl Friedlich Benz ( 1844-1929 )(8)

This was the first automobile that loaded an internal combustion engine in the world. Daimler registered the patent of a four-wheeled automobile that loaded 2 cylinders, 1.5 PS, and a gasoline engine with a four-speed transmission in 1889 together with Maybach (Wilhelm Maybach. 1846-1929).

Fig.10 Advertisement of world's first automobile loaded gasoline internal combustion engine(7)

The diesel engine was made public in the 2nd power-driven machinery and work machine exposition that was held in Munchen in 1897. In 1898, the international trade fair was held in Munchen, 53 kinds of internal combustion engines were displayed. Forty-nine types in them were Otto's four-stroke gasoline internal combustion engines with spark ignition device.
The diesel engines are compression ignition engine, so that strong structure is required as enduring high temperature and high pressure. Therefore weight becomes heavy inevitably. However, compared with engines equipped ignition device, light oil and heavy oil can also be used, a fuel cost is cheap, a carburetor and a spark plug are unnecessary, and there is few breakdowns. By these features, diesel engines began to be used rapidly for industries as shown in Table 1(6).

Table 1 Trasition of diesel engine(6)
Total Engine Power
Total Number of Engine
Average Engine Power
Feb., 1889
June, 1901
Sep., 1901
June, 1902

The gasoline engines worked in stable during operation because Gottlob Honold (1876-1923) of the Bosch Company invented the highly efficient spark plug and the high-pressure magneto ignition device in 1902. Moreover, more high-powered diesel engine was developed because Robert Bosch (1861-1942) invented the highly efficient fuel injection device in 1927. Trucks in which the diesel engine was loaded began to be manufactured from 1923 and small-sized car is from 1936.

Fig.11 Gottlob Honold(6)( 1876-1923 )

Fig.12 Robert Bosch(7)( 1861-1942 )

Diesel built immense property by his patent. However, his pains were taken over to improve diesel engines. His mind and body were completely exhausted and went missing from the ferry that went from Antwerp to Harwich of Britain.

4. Technical Innovation of Diesel Engine
In 1983, Daihatsu Co., Ltd. of Japanese automobile manufacturer mass-produced epoch-making compact diesel engine at the first in the world. The specification of the engine was displacement of 1 liter and three-cylinders and the power was 38 PS with natural aspiration. It was loaded on compact car named "Charade". The time was the Centenary just after when Diesel obtained the German patents. Zexel Co.,Ltd. of Japan made a technical announcement of the fuel injection controlled device of a "Common Rail System" in 1995, and it was made contract technical cooperation with Bosch company in 1996.
Diesel engines are still popular in Europe, and small-sized cars with TDI (Turbo-charged Direct fuel Injection) or CDI (Common rail Direct fuel Injection) is used abundantly.
In Germany, occupation ratio of diesel engines among the automobiles registered in 2001 is 37.4 %(9). This is about 5 times larger compared with 7.8 % of the same periods of Japan.
Furthermore in 2000, Mercedes Benz broke the world record of displacement of diesel engine for cars being held by Daihatsu. Development of displacement of 0.8 liters and three-cylinders diesel engine powered of 41 PS by CDI has finished, and it is loaded on a sub-compact car named "Smart".
Generally the thermal efficiency of a diesel engine is about 1.2 to 1.4 times larger than a gasoline engine, and has sufficient energy with less fuel. Moreover, durability and reliability are higher than gasoline engines. The life of diesel engines is about 300,000 km to 1 million km at mileage, and is 3 times longer than gasoline engines. Diesel engines can be said as excellent engine from a viewpoint of saving resources and energy saving.

5. Conclusion
The principle of a diesel engine can be said to be in the fire piston that is the product of the wisdom of lives of the mountainous people lived in Southeast Asia. An intuition of Diesel played a great role in his invention.
Authors investigated the life of him and it is thought that another motive of invention is there.
One is in Paris where he was born and lived in childhood. Another is in London where he emigrated after Paris. He must have looked at the world's first self-propelled steam engine powered tricycle invented by Cugnot (Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. 1725-1804) in 1770 at Conservatoire National des Arts et Metier established in 1770 of Paris. Also, he must have looked at steam engines invented by James Watts (1735-1819) and other person at South Kensington Museum (later, Science Museum) established in 1857 of London.
Engineer Osker von Miller succeeded in electricity transmission over a distance of 57 km from Miesbach to Munchen in the first place. He founded Deutsches Museum at Munchen in 1903. Diesel performed great fund donation from his property obtained by the patent.
During investigations of the process of transition of technology from a fire piston to the diesel engines, authors keenly realized that "There is no basis of invention which excels experiences. An idea flashing into one's mind must be produced with sufficient experiences."
Authors would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Nakata who donated a precious fire piston to us.


  1. Yorikazu Shimotsuma, Ask the Starting Point of Machinery and Human Beings to the Origin of Technology, Journal of the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers, Vol.85, No.758 (1982), p.33 (in Japanese).
  2. Akira Mayeda, Yorikazu Shimotsuma and Yasumi Ozawa, Chronological Studies on Origin and Development of Technology ( 9th report : Techno-logy of Weaving Machine in Mountainous People Lived in Southeast Asia ), Preprint of the Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers, No.810-14 (1981), p.269 (in Japanese).
  3. Joseph Needham, based largely on collaborative work with Wang Ling, Lu Gwei-Djen, Ho Ping-Yu, Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West ( Lectures and addresses on the history of science and technology ), Cambridge at the University Press, (1970). Translated by Keiji Yamada for 2 volumes, Kawade-Shobo-Shin-Sha, (1974) (in Japanese).
  4. Masao Iwaki, A Guide to Primitive Technology, Shin-Sei-Syuppan, (1976) (in Japanese).
  5. Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, Die Erstehung des Dieselmotors, Julius Springer, (1913). Translated by Shigeki Yamaoka, San-Kai-Do, (1993) (in Japanese).
  6. Akira Oita, Promenade of History of Technology in Germany, Do-Bun-Kan-Syuppan, (1993) (in Japanese).
  7. Eugen Diesel, Gustuv Goldbeck and Friedrich Scildberger, Von Motor Zum Auto, Deutsches Verlags-Anstralt GmbH, (1957). Translated by Katsuya Yamada, San-Kai-Do, (1984) (in Japanese).
  8. http://www.autonews.com/
  9. http://www.chuoaoyama.or.jp/