Although little known, Nickolaus Otto is an inventor we should remember every time we get into our cars.
Before there was Karl Benz or Henry Ford, there was Nikolaus Otto. Otto spent his early years as a traveling salesman, but later became a successful engineer. This German inventor was the first to display an efficient working internal combustion engine (others claim to predate this, but the age of internal combustion truly starts with the Otto Cycle Engine). This engine was invented in 1862. He was granted a patent for his machine, but several others, including Karl Benz, were working on motors of the same principle, and his patent was later questioned. By that time, however, he was co-owner of a successful company manufacturing stationary internal combustion engines for light industry. These engines worked on what was then called “gaslight gas”, and had to be hooked up to gas pipes and ignited from a pilot light.
Before his death in 1900, Otto developed an electrical ignition system (the forerunner of the spark plug) to ignite liquid fuels for internal combustion. Petroleum quickly became popular as a mobile fuel source. The electrical ignition idea can actually be first found in the work of Alessandro Volta who used it to ignite gas to fire a cork from a small gun in the 1780’s.
Karl Benz is, of course, given credit for the first automobile. It used an engine very similar to the original Otto Cycle Engine which Benz himself designed. Benz’s company would later join with Diamler Motors to form Diamler-Benz. Gottlieb Diamler was a former employee of Otto’s first motor company. He founded his own enterprise after Otto’s death. When I watch films taken in pre-WWI Germany, I am stricken by how industrialized that country was at that early date. Otto, and his internal combustion engine are responsible for powering much of early German Industrialization, although they were merely an improvement on steam power which had already been employed for nearly a century.
Once applied to the automobile the internal combustion engine changed the way people traveled and moved goods in a revolutionary way. Just as thesteam engine had made railroads possible, the internal combustion engine made moving heavy loads without rails much easier and more practical. Now small towns to which railways were not connected could be connected to the factories where goods were produced almost as easily as towns and cities on the main rail lines. This is a transportation technology acting as a catalyst to modern consumer culture whose importance cannot be overstated.