Rudolph Diesel Did he jump or was he pushed?
September 29th 1913. A man rests his head despairingly on his arms, as they rest on the salty handrail of a mail-steamer bound for Harwich, England. Momentarily, he raises his eyes to scan the horizon. Yet the green waves from which he tastes the odd drop of tangy spray offer him no solace, or any aid in making his tragic decision. He squeezes his head between his hands in the hope of relieving the migraine which, like his money trouble, plagues him. He wonders whether it is worth going on.
And yet he ponders upon how far he has come, and where all his success has brought him. In some ways he has done very well for a son,born in Paris in 1858, of a poor immigrant leather-worker from Bavaria. He had made his struggling but aspirational parents proud, his sisters too, by winning in 1875, through his early genius and hard work, a scholarship to the prestigious Munich polytechnic. He had even been spared national service due to his potential in the field of science. In Paris, he reflected ruefully, where he was working as a refrigeration engineer he had even been responsible for a patented method of freezing ice-cubes. And yet here he stood, alone on deck, feeling as if he had no friend in the world, the self-made man whose work furthering the possibilities of the internal combustion engine had made him rich and famous. A man many others would envy, he told himself.
Almost in a trance, he carefully folded his overcoat and placed it neatly under the handrail of the ship, his hat placed tidily on top. He placed one foot on the bottom rail of the ship's side, and gazed down miserably into the swirling frothing grey depths of the ocean. Again, he hesitated, to consider his position. It was true, he reasoned, that with his new innovations in engine design that he was much in demand, and yet the social conscience that had always been his concern told him his ground-breaking designs would not be used in the pursuit of peace, but something much darker. Already he was being pressurised by the Germans to adapt his ideas for use in Machines of War. Despairingly, he could see only one way out of that situation. He felt cornered.
A salty breeze ruffled the greying hair on his now hatless head. He shivered as he thought of what was to come. Should he re-consider? In some ways it was already too late for that. An explanatory letter to his wife had already been sent. But he was at least glad he had left things in good order at home. Touring the house with his son before he left, he had explained in detail and at length, all the procedures and details and keys that a new head of the house would need to know in order to safeguard the family.
Out at sea, whipped into peaks by the freshening wind in the gloomy light, the waves' froth was cream-colored, brown in places. A sudden gust sent a fleck of it onto his shoulder, breaking his reverie. He lifted the other foot now onto the bottom rail, distributing his weight in a different way with both feet now on the narrow rail, he wobbled more precariously.
He glanced briefly at the only other passengers out on the deck two men sheltering from the prevailing wind in the lee of the funnel. Could it really be only his imagination he wondered or did they seem to turn up wherever he went? In hushed tones of German they seemed to whisper to each other, huddling together and taking notes. They seemed to be taking a particular interest in him. If so, it was not his visit to the new Carels factory in Ipswich,England that occupied their thoughts he was sure. It was more likely to be his possible discussions with the English about his inventive work and its possible relevance to the war.
Scenes from his life began to swim before his eyes as his migraine grew worse. How sad that his resolve while working under Carl von Linde, to design a less wasteful engine that had a thermodynamic cycle might now be used against his pacifist better judgement. At the time, back in 1890, he had noticed the possibilities of using air (under compression in a cylinder) as a working fluid. He had hoped that fuel injected into the gas would be the first ever that could be ignited without needing a spark and as he worked towards a combustion that would happen at constant temperature and pressure, he had grown so excited. He could see that it was going to work.
Proudly, he saw that as the gases expanded, so the pistons of an engine for a new century could be driven. He knew he had cracked it, he had revolutionised previous engine technology by optimising the heat/work ratio a fitting accomplishment for the son of an impecunious scrimper and saver, and for a man who had grown up to avoid waste at all costs, (in the case of previous engines ,an unforgivable 90%.) In 1898 (a year after he published his paper) he had patented it, the engine now bearing his name. The highlight of his career perhaps, he reflected, but wondered where it had all gone wrong.
The vessel gave a sudden lurch to star-board as it ploughed into a massive curling wave of olive green and, despite himself, he instinctively gripped the handrail tighter. The two men recovered their equilibrium and began to approach unsteadily across the pitching deck towards him. Was their intention to help or hinder? He couldn't be sure. Decision time. Despondently, he hung his head, wishing he could have left his finances in a better state for his wife and loved ones. On paper, sure, he was a millionaire with a lavish mansion nearing completion, but his investments were not doing well.
He could do no more his accountant had warned him to prepare for the worst loan interest and bad investments had caught up with him and would make grim reading at the audit. All he had managed to salvage was several thousands which he had placed in a carpet bag and left ready for his poor wife. His head throbbed, he felt giddy and nauseous he thought of his loved ones as he took a last look around him and then at the waiting waves .
The body of Rudolph Diesel was found floating, reportedly face-down, in the English Channel on October 10th (disputed dates) 1913. There is still speculation about the manner of his death, but not long after his demise a deadly German submarine fleet appeared. How would the pacifist and economy-minded man who had used peanut oil in one of his engines have felt at the news that McDonald's are planning to run some of their vehicles on frying oil? If only he had known about cetane, but that is another story for another day!