The Ancient Origins of the Modern Diesel Engine

bailey_hudson - August 25, 2020

Diesel engines lay behind most of the heavy-duty machinery that powers our modern
world. Heavy digging machinery, cranes, excavators - diesel engines power them all.
Today, we’ll take a quick look at the history of the diesel engine, and how today’s heavy
machinery improves on but builds from old tools.

Origins of modern machines
Modern machinery owes much to the long development of tools over the centuries.
Mankind has always needed to accomplish certain engineering tasks; excavating
building sites, erecting walls, towers, cathedrals - all of those things have been going on
for literally thousands of years. For most of that time, we accomplished such feats
through sheer, brute manpower. It was supplemented, of course, with animal power,
with horses, donkeys, and oxen providing some extra muscle. But at the end of the day,
the tasks were the same.

Much of what we think of as modern machinery - lathes, mills, and other similar
equipment - have their origins in the 14th century. But machinery didn’t really take off
until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the advent of the Industrial

Continuous Improvement
As countries industrialised and factories began to produce more and heavier
manufactured goods, tools needed to improve. Inventors used the same old mechanical
principles but applied them in new ways. pulleys, levers, inclined planes, wedges,
screws, and wheels became early lathes and mills. Water wheels turned gristmills,

which gave way to steam power for the new factories. The steam engine, in turn, moved
aside for the internal combustion engine, which remains a dominant source of power for
heavy machinery today. As the methods used to power modern machinery improved, so
did the tools themselves; pedal-powered lathes, for instance, gave way to steam-
powered, then engine-driven, then electric. Now, modern CNC machine are nearly fully
automated. Tasks that required intensive amounts of manpower can now be performed
with minimal human input.

Diesel’s Engine
How do diesel engines fit in? A basic diesel engine is an internal combustion engine,
but the diesel engine relies on a slightly different method of combustion. The engine
gets its name from Rudolf Diesel, a German inventor, who hit on the idea of using the
elevated temperature that comes from compressing air to actually ignite an air/fuel
mixture inside the engine. Other internal combustion engines, like the common petrol or
gasoline engine, use spark plugs to ignite the fuel.

Diesel’s engine caught on slowly, at first, but quickly found a home in “heavier”
applications. It was used in ships as early as 1903, and in trucks by 1908. In the 1970s,
the diesel engine began to be more commonly used in commercial cars and trucks.
Today, diesel engines are common in everything from passenger vehicles to buses,
from trucks to bulldozers and tractors.

What goes around comes around
Diesel-powered heavy machinery fits the same role as teams of men and horses;
transport for construction equipment, erecting walls, mining, farming, etc. Diesel
engines require careful maintenance, but can withstand constant use in tough

The difference, of course, comes in degree. The Pyramids of Egypt were likely
constructed with the help of an inclined plane - just like a modern bulldozer uses. But
what took the Egyptians years would take a modern crew, using diesel-powered
equipment, only hours.

Bailey Hudson is a freelance industrial writer currently writing for