Today In Science History – September 29 – Rudolf Diesel Mystery 2


Rudolf Diesel

Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) Inventor of the Diesel Engine

September 29 is the day Rudolf Diesel disappeared. Diesel was the French-German engineer who designed an internal combustion engine that carries his name.


The Diesel engine was the result of Diesel’s quest to build the most efficient internal combustion engine possible. In most internal combustion engines, the fuel is mixed with air, compressed and then ignited using an electrical spark. In a diesel engine, the air is compressed before the fuel is added. The compressed air has enough heat to ignite the fuel without the need of the electric spark. The result is an engine that is more thermally efficient than a regular gasoline engine. Today’s versions of Diesel’s engines are often used in heavy-duty transportation industries like trucking and shipping.

On September 29, 1913, Diesel boarded the steamer Dresden in Antwerp harbor in Belgium to cross the English Channel. He was going to meet with a manufacturing company in London to discuss opening a factory to produce his engines. After eating dinner, he left a 6:15 AM wake-up call. He was never seen again.

Ten days later, the crew of the Dutch fishing boat Coertsen pulled a badly decomposed body of a man from the sea. After gathering the body’s personal effects, the crew returned the body to the sea. These effects were later identified by Diesel’s son as belonging to his father. Since there was no body to investigate, no one is certain the body belonged to Diesel and many speculative theories have been formed as to what happened to Diesel. Some suggested he was murdered by German agents to prevent his engine from reaching England before the war or killed by people associated with the petroleum industry. Some believed he staged his own death and lived somewhere under an assumed name. Others assumed he killed himself while some feel he was just unlucky, fell overboard and drowned.

Whatever happened to Diesel will remain a mystery.

Notable Science Events for September 29

2010 – Georges Charpak died.

Georges Charpak

Georges Charpak (1924 -2010) Credit: Studio Harcourt/Creative Commons

Charpak is a Polish-French physicist who was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the multiwire proportional chamber and other particle detectors. A multiwire proportional chamber uses an array of high voltage wires in a chamber of ionizing gas. When a charged particle enters the chamber, it will ionize the gas and cause a current change in the wires near the particle’s path. Measuring the current and determining which wire is supplying the current gives information on the position, path, charge, and energy of the ionizing particle.

1962 – Canada’s first satellite was launched.

Alouette 1

Alouette 1, Canada’s first satellite. NASA

Alouette 1, Canada’s first satellite was launched from Vandenberg AFB’s Pacific Missile Range into orbit. It was designed to study the ionosphere. It was the first satellite built that was not of American or Soviet design.

1954 – CERN created.

CERN logoThe European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN (from Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) was established. Twelve European countries established a council to build a state of the art laboratory complex. CERN provides infrastructure and equipment for the study of high-energy physics.

Through its lifetime, it has been the site for numerous advancements in particle physics such as the discovery of W and Z bosons, isolation of antimatter hydrogen atoms, and the discovery of a subatomic particle consistent with the Higgs boson. What we know as the World Wide Web found its origin at CERN’s computing facility.

1931 – James Watson Cronin was born.

Cronin is an American physicist who shares the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics with Val Logsdon Fitch for their discovery of symmetry violations in the decay of neutral K-mesons. Particle theory maintained that charge and parity would be maintained between a particle and its antiparticle. Cronin and Fitch discovered that for K-mesons, this relationship is not the same if the reaction is run in reverse.

1927 – Willem Einthoven died.

Willem Einthoven

Willem Einthoven (1860 – 1927)

Einthoven was a Dutch physician who invented the first electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) device. This device would measure the electric currents created by the beating of the heart and record the values. This invention would earn him the 1924 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

1920 – Peter Dennis Mitchell was born.

Mitchell was a British chemist who described the method adenosine diphosphate (ADP) is converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in a cell. He was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of this work. He discovered the process known as oxidative phosphorylation while investigating the mitochondrion, the organelle that produces energy for the cell.

1913 – Rudolf Diesel died.

1901 – Enrico Fermi was born.

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954)

Fermi was an Italian physicist who made many pioneering advances in nuclear physics. He was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for producing radioactive elements by neutron irradiation and reactions caused by slow neutrons. His work during the Manhattan Project involved building the first nuclear reactor pile and first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The element fermium, the elementary particle family fermions and Fermilab outside of Chicago are all named in his honor.

1860 – Chapin Aaron Harris died.

Chapin Aaron Harris

Chapin Aaron Harris (1806 – 1860)

Harris was a physician and dentist who pioneered modern dentistry. He was a co-founder of the first dental college, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery and co-founder of the first journal of dentistry, The American Journal of Dental Science and was a founder of the American Society of Dental Surgery.

1898 – Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was born.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898 – 1976)

Lysenko was a Russian biologist who led Soviet agriculture and biology under Josef Stalin. He rejected the principles of Mendelian genetics in favor of his theories that closely follow Lemark’s evolutionary theories where environment dictates inheritance. He rose to his position by promising higher grain yields through the group efforts of collective farming and his guidance. He managed to have the criticism of his policies and the teaching of Mendel’s theories outlawed. Dissenting scientists were either executed or exiled. His power diminished after the death of Stalin, but the policies were not overturned until 1964. His leadership set Russian biology back twenty years.

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