Diesel, Father and Son: Social Philosophies of Technology

Donald E. Thomas
1978 Technology and Culture  
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more » ... access to Technology and Culture. In a recent essay on "Historians and Modern Technology," the German scholar Reinhard Riirup has indicated that in early 20thcentury Germany the studies of both the history of technology and the philosophy of technology developed in a highly ambivalent atmosphere. On the one hand, enthusiasts voiced their belief in continuing technological invention and progress; yet, on the other hand, critics indicated their concern over the increasingly negative impact of technology on society, an attitude which often led to cultural pessimism.1 Such ambivalence may be rooted in trends prevalent in 19thand early 20th-century German intellectual history. It may mirror the relationship that individuals and social classes perceived between themselves and moder technology. Or it may have originated in the personal life histories of the individuals involved. An excellent case study involving all of these factors is provided by the lives of Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), inventor of the diesel engine, and his son, Eugen Diesel (1889-1970), who wrote voluminously on the relationship of technology and culture from the 1920s to the 1960s. The story of Rudolf and Eugen Diesel deals with more than the account of an invention and the diverse origins of a philosophy of technology. It also illustrates the inventor's feeling of responsibility for the social impact of his invention and the influence of a famous father on his son. Born in Paris of German parents, Rudolf Diesel grew up in an . Above all, he wishes to express his thanks to Rainer Diesel for sharing his memories of his father, Eugen Diesel, and for permission to examine the Nachlass of his father and selected letters of his grandfather, Rudolf Diesel. 'Reinhard Rurup, "Historians and Modern Technology," Technology and Culture 15 (April 1974): 174. ? 1978 by the Society for the History of Technology. 0040-165X/78/1903-0002$01.50 376 This content downloaded from 136.165.238.131 on Sat, 18 Oct 2014 11:01:04 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions Diesel, Father and Son 377 atmosphere of small means and some privation, but from early life he was driven by the desire to be both successful and wealthy. He studied first at an industrial school in Augsburg and then at the Technische Hochschule in Munich, where he passed his exams with record marks. Working as an engineer in the refrigeration business, first in France and then in Germany, he conceived the idea of replacing the steam engine with a more efficient heat engine.2 Such an idea was not new in Diesel's time. Hundreds of inventors were seeking more economical and efficient alternatives to the steam engine. In the 1860s and 1870s the German inventor Nicolaus Otto had developed the internal-combustion engine. But although many of the ideas that made up the background of the diesel engine were already in existence before 1890, Diesel claimed his approach to the problem was novel: he conceived of an engine in which combustion would take place isothermally, or at a common temperature. Such an engine would be extremely efficient. It would come close to realizing the ideal heat engine, developed in theory by the Frenchman Sadi Carnot in his Camot cycle.3 Diesel knew that he would need considerable financial help in realizing his ideas. In 1892 he took out a patent for his engine, and in 1893 he published a theoretical justification called Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine [Theorie und Konstruktion eines rationellen Warmemotors]. The book combined detailed drawings and mathematics with speculations on the engine's social benefits. For instance, Diesel thought his small, efficient engine would help industry decentralize and restore the small craftsman to the position he had lost because of the steam engine.4 The book was sent to leading European authorities on thermodynamics such as Lord Kelvin, who for the most part endorsed Diesel's ideas. It was basically these endorsements plus Diesel's eloquence that convinced the Krupp works in Essen and Heinrich Buz's Augsburg Engine Works to back the project. In an exhausting series of experiments between 1893 and 1897, Diesel and his helpers were able to develop the first working diesel engine in Buz's Augsburg factory. There were, however, 2The best full-length work on Rudolf Diesel is still his son's, Eugen Diesel's, biography, Diesel: Der Mensch, das Werk, das Schicksal (Hamburg, 1937). The English biography by W. Robert Nitske and Charles Morrow Wilson, RudolfDiesel: Pioneer of the Age of Power (Norman, Okla., 1965), is in many instances either a paraphrase of Eugen Diesel's biography or untrustworthy. 3This discussion of the nature and development of the diesel engine relies heavily on two articles by Lynwood Bryant: "Rudolf Diesel and His Rational Engine," Scientific
doi:10.2307/3103371 fatcat:glout4spmfc3zgka4ft7vcygdi