United States (Brussels Morning newspaper) The Brussels International Exposition of 1910 awarded a Grand Prix prize to Rudolf—a young German inventor. Rudolf’s exhibit was a lightweight, five-horsepower internal combustion engine capable of powering an automobile. His engine ran on peanut oil. Three years later, Rudolf would meet his demise under very mysterious circumstances while leaving the port of Antwerp.

These two Belgian locations serve as timeline bookends that tell a little-known but much larger narrative of a story of a technological “game-changer”,  an account of World War 1,  and a bizarre murder mystery. Additionally, Rudolf’s story has consequences in today’s discussions of environmental issues and how they relate to global politics. Consider the life (and death!) of Rudolf Diesel….

Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) was born in Paris to German Bavarian parents. At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the family was forced to move to London and then later back to Bavaria. By age 14 Rudolf was an accomplished student with an exceptional aptitude for science and engineering.  

At 19 yrs. Rudolf received a full scholarship to the prestigious Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich ultimately graduating with the highest academic honors. It was not long before Rudolf was granted numerous patents most notably in the field of refrigeration.

His interest in thermodynamics and fuel efficiency peaked but he always had in the back of his mind to develop a small efficient piston-driven engine using peanut oil or vegetable oil. Rudolf believed that the predominant engine power of that era—steam power—was cumbersome, inefficient, and dated. Steam power, especially in marine usage, required large volumes of coal with the necessary manpower to shovel that coal into space and weight-consuming boilers which, in turn, belched black filth into the atmosphere.

Steam power was an example of an “external combustion engine” that was highly inefficient. Rudolf Diesel calculated that as much as 90% of the energy produced by the coal-to-steam process was wasted.

Rudolf saw the incredible inefficiency of steam power and from 1893 to 1897 he worked on designing an “internal combustion engine” that was smaller, more powerful, and used other energy sources like peanut oil, vegetable oil, and coal dust. After much trial and tribulation (emphasis on the former), Rudolf Diesel developed an engine that today carries his name— the Diesel engine.

Rudolf’s invention would change the status quo of the complex geopolitical world. The nations of Europe were going their separate nationalistic ways and the paranoia of the run-up to World War 1 ran deep. The militaries and industrialists around the world began to pay close attention to the development of the diesel engine. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II believed that the diesel engine was essential to achieving his imperial ambitions.

He needed to strengthen his navy to compete with the superior British fleet. The diesel motor was beginning to be the superior choice for all surface marine applications but was the ONLY choice for the new naval weapon called the submarine.

This development was not lost on the Kaiser’s sworn enemy England. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was beginning to understand the advantage of diesel power and urged its quick integration into the Royal Navy. Rudolf’s invention began a naval “arms race” between the complicated geopolitical alliances percolating in pre-World War 1 Europe.

On the evening of 29 September 1913, Rudolf boarded the steamer SS Dresden docked in Antwerp. The ship was scheduled to leave for England the next morning where he was scheduled to meet with British industrialists and military leaders. Rudolf dined with friends retired to his cabin about 10 p.m. and left word to be awaked at 6:15 the following morning. In the morning his cabin was found empty and his bed unslept.

Ten days later his badly decomposed body was found floating in Belgium’s Scheldt Estuary. Since the incident was officially deemed a “drowning” and occurred in international waters, no formal investigation occurred.

One hundred and ten years after Rudolf’s unnatural death, speculation over the cause remains a topic of much historical speculation. Rudolf’s demise allows for three possible causes: accident, suicide, or perhaps a geopolitical assignation.

Was the incident simply an accident? The waters in the Schelt Estuary are notoriously tricky and it is not beyond the realm of belief that an unfortunate accident might have sealed Rudolf’s fate. But the ship’s log reported that the passage was on calm seas with a windless night. The ship’s deck had a safety railing four and a half feet high. The evening was cool and Rudolf’s overcoat was found in his room so the suggestion that he might have aimlessly wandered around the ship’s deck seems remote.    

Was Rudolf’s death a suicide?  After his body was found, his banking records show that Rudolf’s finances had been greatly diminished. Indeed, he had been well compensated for his inventions but that was offset by great sums spent on ongoing research.

Oddly,  not long after his body was found, some newspaper accounts reported that his wife Martha had received a bag that contained 20,000 marks in cash ($120,000 today) Before his ill-fated trip Rudolf had given her the bag with directions not to open it until the following week. Rumor or innuendo? Accounts differ…

Perhaps this was a murder with pre-World War 1 implications. Were agents of Kaiser Wilhelm convinced that Rudolf was about to sell diesel secrets to the British thereby giving them a leg up on submarine development? Did the British feel threatened by Diesel’s genius and seek to eliminate the influential German inventor?

There is some speculation among historians to suggest that Rudolf Diesel was murdered because his engine was disruptive to the established order of the Industrial Age. Could it be that Diesel’s engine put him on a collision course with tycoons of the oil and coal industries? Some biographers have suggested that the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller may have been behind Diesel’s death.

The coal/oil/gas Baron John D. Rockefeller, a man known to be ruthless in eliminating competition, viewed the Diesel engine—an engine that did not require gasoline or any product derived from crude oil— to be an existential threat to his business monopolies.

Rudolf Diesel’s backstory brings to light the realization that energy, big business, and politics are dynamically intertwined.  The evolution of new technologies (e.g., the diesel engine)l and new potential sources of energy (e.g., peanut oil, vegetable oil, etc.) can have profound political consequences. It can also threaten established industries like coal and oil. We will probably never know the whole truth regarding Rudolf’s death but the circumstances surrounding his game-changing invention speak loudly to this point.