A brief chronological history of the development of internal combustion engines.

| September/October 1990

  • John Ericsson
    John Ericsson.
  • George Brayton
    George Brayton.

  • John Ericsson
  • George Brayton

20201 Arthur Rd. Big Rapids, Michigan 49307

In early engine development there were numerous scientists and engineers that contributed theories and knowledge of importance that was utilized by engineers of later date. With the limited background of information we have on the development of early engines it seems amazing that so few engineers accomplished so much in such a short period of time. The names of Otto and Langen, Mietz and Weiss, Daimler and Benz are readily recognized, but what information did they have to work with, and ultimately achieve success in their efforts?

The information submitted here may enlighten the problem to some extent, but admittedly is not complete for all those who contributed so much. The dates presented here may be in slight conflict with others encountered, depending on the source of information.

In 1824, Sadi Carnot, a French engineer, suggested fundamental ideas for an internal combustion engine. He proposed four valuable ideas.

1.  Self-ignition of fuel in highly compressed air.

2.  Compression of air before ignition.

3.  A means of cooling the engine cylinder.

4. Utilization of exhaust heat.

In 1833, John Ericsson, a Swedish-American inventor, designed his first engine to run on hot air. It operated on the principle that air drawn into a hot cylinder expanded and pushed a piston up. The horsepower developed would run a popcorn popper! In 1839, Ericsson came to the United States. By 1860 he had an engine that developed 11/4 HP at 45 RPM. It was used to pump water. Ericsson designed and built the 'Monitor' for the U.S. Navy in 1861-1862.

In 1859 crude petroleum was first produced by Edwin Drake at Titusville, PA. This was the derivative for gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil and asphalt. At this time gasoline was considered extremely dangerous.

In 1860 Lene Etienne Lenoir of Luxembourg was an advanced engineer of his time. He patented a one-cylinder two-cycle engine designed to run on gas. The term 'gas' as used on these early engines was not gasoline, it was a gas vapor sometimes called illuminating gas, coal gas, benzine or naphtha. However, Lenoir's engine was not commercially accepted because of its heavy weight and inefficiency. Lenoir also contributed to the development of the induction spark coil.

In 1862 a French scientist, Beau De Rochas, stated the principle that in order for an internal combustion engine to operate it should comprise four strokes of the piston. These four strokes were to be:

1. An intake stroke (fuel and air)

2. A compression stroke

3. The combustion or power stroke

4. An exhaust stroke of the burned gases

This principle of operation is in use today in modern piston engines. In 1864 Siegfried Marcus, an Austrian, built a Lenoir type of engine that used gasoline as fuel. In 1867 Dr. N.A. Otto and Eugen Langen of Germany, experimented with a bulky-free piston engine. In this engine an explosion pushed the piston up, cooling of the gases caused a partial vacuum. This pulled the piston down. The connecting rod had a rack and pinion design that was connected to the crankshaft and flywheel. By means of a clutch, only the down stroke acted on the crankshaft.

In 1876 Otto built the 'Otto Silent' gas engine which worked on the four-stroke cycle principle proposed by Beau De Rochas in 1862. It used flame ignition and had a thermal efficiency of 16%. This achievement became known as the 'Otto Cycle' principle of operation. This engine was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1878. Otto and Langen obtained patents in the United States for both two-cycle and four-cycle engines in 1876.

In 1874 Bickerton was instrumental in developing the benefits of combustion chamber design. He produced an engine with a combustion chamber of peculiar design. Fresh gases entered a sort of pre-combustion chamber connected to the main area by a narrow neck. This invention made it possible to produce an oil-type engine of marked increase in efficiency.

In 1876 George Brayton, a New Englander, built an engine for a street car. This was a two-cycle, with three power cylinders and three additional cylinders to compress the petroleum vapor mixture. Brayton exhibited his 'Ready Motor' at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

In 1878 Dugald Clerk, an Englishman, was issued a patent on an engine that operated on the two-stroke cycle principle. This engine actually used two cylinders; one was the power cylinder, and another connected cylinder was the charging cylinder. The engine used a port opening on the cylinder to exhaust the burned gases. The charging cylinder forced fuel mixture into the power cylinder until compression pressure there exceeded charging cylinder pressure. The mixture was exploded by an ignitor. The cycle is as follows:

Stroke 1. (a) admission of fuel (b) compression. 2. (c) combustion, (d) expansion of gases (power), (e) exhaust. The engine was not perfected until 1881.

In 1885 Gottlieb Daimler, a German inventor, who worked with Dr. N.A. Otto, constructed a working engine. Daimler's contribution was in the area of weight reduction and speed. His engine weight, per unit of horsepower, was less than one hundred pounds compared to one thousand of other engines. The engine speed increased to 800 RPM compared to 180 RPM of the original Otto engine. He used a hot tube ignition system. Later Daimler patented a V-2 engine.

In 1885 Karl Benz, a German inventor, whose name is associated with Mr. Daimler (a man he never met), constructed as a gas engine. His engine was using an electric spark for ignition, and was a four-stroke cycle engine. Mr. Benz also designed a float-type carburetor, a differential gear and a transmission system. He also started to build his engine in 1878. In 1885 he started the Benz and Company of Mannheim. In 1894 the Benz factory was the largest automobile factory in the world, producing 500 vehicles a year.

In 1888 Herbert Ackroyd Stuart improved the design of Bickerton's ideas of precombustion chamber design and was granted a patent in 1890. His patent concerned the prevention of preigni-tion of explosive charge by introducing the combustible liquid, vapor or gas, at the end of the compression stroke. The engine developed from this patent was known as Hornsby-Ackroyd. It utilized a vaporizer and the hot bulb for ignition.

In 1882 Dr. Rudolf Diesel, a German engineer, was issued a patent for an engine that would operate using the heat of compression to ignite the fuel injected into the combustion chamber. He originally attempted to obtain 1500 PSI, but this failed. The third engine he built in 1895 was a success. It had a compression pressure of 450 PSI. The fuel was injected by compressed air.

The thermal efficiency of this engine was 24%. This was a great improvement over Otto and Langen' engine with a thermal efficiency of 16%. Thermal efficiency is defined as the ratio of work done in a unit of time, expressed in B.T.U., to the total heat supplied in the same unit of time. In other words, an engine depends on heat to perform useful work. How much of the heat is utilized, and how much is wasted. Thermal efficiency indicates how much of the heat is utilized, expressed in terms of percentage. Steam engines had only a thermal efficiency of 3% to 10%. Modern diesel engines may operate with a thermal efficiency of up to 40%.

In 1892 Ranny Olds, an American, and his father 'Pliny' started making 'petroleum gas engines' exploded by a spark from a galvanic battery, as advertised at that time. Some records indicate that Ranny Olds was a millionaire before Henry Ford succeeded with his first Ford car in 1908, although Henry made his first car in 1896.

In 1893 Carl Weiss, a German-born American, developed a two-cycle engine that utilized Ackroyd Stuart's ideas and Mr. Day of England's invention of an enclosed crankcase design. This hot vaporizer oil engine sprayed a charge of fuel onto a hot bulb. The engine went into production in 1894. At this time, Carl Weiss and August Mietz formed the Mietz and Weiss Engine Co. Mr. Weiss had many patents issued to him prior to this time. Mietz and Weiss continued building engines until 1915.

In 1894 Jos. Reid Gas Engine Co. introduced the Clerk two-cycle engine in America. The engine was widely used in the oil fields of Pennsylvania and mid-continent America.


Diesel Engineering Handbook, Diesel Publications, Inc., 1935. Hughes Printing Co., East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Diesel Engineering Handbook, 11th ed., Diesel Publications, Inc., 1966. 80 Lincoln Avenue, Stamford, Connecticut.

World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 12, 1966. Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.

Farm Gas Engines and Tractors, Fred Jones, M.S., 1963. McGraw Hill Book Co. Inc.

American Gas Engines since 1872, C.H. Wendel, 1983. Crestline Publishing Co., 1251 North Jefferson, Sarasota, Florida 33577

A History of Man's Progress, Harold Warp, Pioneer Village Publishers, 1978. Minden, Nebraska.


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