Nicolaus Otto and the First Internal Combustion Engine

Written by Carly Hallman

old automobile

People insert a key or push a button and the internal combustion engine that powers their car comes to life. Although the automobile engine has evolved greatly over the last century or so, the basics remain the same. Fuel and air enter the engine, setting off an explosion in the cylinders of the engine, and the motor is now ready to power the car on its way. A German engineer named Nicolaus Otto is responsible for the development of the petroleum fuel-powered internal combustion engine.

Nicolaus Otto

Nicolaus August Otto was born in what was Prussia, what is now known as Germany, in 1832. Although a talented student with an interest in science, he left school before finishing and began work as a business apprentice. He next worked as a salesman, and it was during his travels as a salesman that he saw a newspaper article describing the Lenoir Engine. Otto began working in his spare time to develop his own internal combustion engine.

The Lenoir Engine

Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who lived in France, developed an engine that was powered by illuminating gas. After Otto read an article describing the engine, he and his brother tried to recreate Lenoir’s engine. After building their own version they filed for a patent but it was rejected by the Prussian Ministry of Commerce.

First Four-Stroke Engine

Otto was determined to build an engine he could patent. He decided in 1861 to make an engine that used a compressed fuel charge. The prototype only ran for a few minutes. His brother left the project. For the next two years, Otto paired with Michael J. Zons, a mechanic who lived in Cologne, to improve his engine design.

Partnership with Eugen Langen

Otto needed investors to continue his work. Eugen Langen was the heir to a sugar fortune and teamed up with Otto in 1864 to form the world’s first company focused on producing an internal combustion engine, NA Otto & Cie. The first engine they developed was a free-piston atmospheric engine. It used about half the gas needed by the Lenoir engine. It was the fourth engine produced by the company that is the ancestor of today’s internal combustion engine.

The Otto Cycle

The Otto engine is a four-stroke engine where the pistons contained in a cylinder move in a stationary engine. The first movement is a downward stroke that draws gas and air into the combustion chamber of a piston. An upward stroke then squeezes the air and gas together. A downward power stroke creates a spark that ignites the compressed mixture. An upward stroke then releases exhaust from the chamber.

Engines Today

Otto’s invention kick-started the internal combustion engine revolution. His work made everything from Model T Fords to Porsche 911 Turbos possible. Other engineers and inventors have continued to refine and improve the basic four-stroke engine. Notable advancements include fuel-injected engines, which in 1955 were first sold in a car. Carburetors were responsible for moving gasoline into combustion chambers before the invention of fuel invention. Carburetors needed regular cleanings and frequent rebuilding. They were very finicky and temperature, weather conditions, and even elevation all impacted how they performed. Fuel injection, in contrast, provides a smoother, steadier, and more efficient engine. 1962 saw the first turbo-charged engine hit the market. It makes for a faster engine by using a redesigned turbine to introduce more air into the cylinder on the first stroke. In 2012, car manufacturers introduced an engine with improved compression ratios. During the second stroke of the Otto cycle, the piston compresses the fuel and air. Tightly compressing these two elements produces a bigger explosion when the mixture is ignited in the third stroke. The compression ratio measures how tightly the piston can squeeze the air and gas. However, compression ratios historically couldn’t be very high or it would cause engine knocking and eventually destroy the engine. The 2012 Mazda SKYACTIV-G engine became the mass-produced engine with an astonishing 14:1 compression rate, allowing it to extract every bit of the energy from the gasoline in the compression chamber without causing knocking thanks to advancements in technology.

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