O is for… (Nicolaus) Otto

Rebecca Wallis explores the life of Nicolaus Otto, credited with the invention of the four-stroke engine.

Rebecca Wallis explores the life of Nicolaus Otto, credited with the invention of the four-stroke engine.

Across the globe, 1832 is remembered for many interesting events: in the UK, the Reform Act enabled more people to vote, Charles Darwin and the Beagle landed in South America, Greece became a sovereign nation, and in Australia the Swan River Colony was renamed Western Australia. It also saw the birth, in Holzhausen an der Haide in Germany, of Nicolaus August Otto – the man who would go on to develop the Otto engine, the gasoline-powered, four-stroke internal combustion engine.

While Otto was interested in science and technology at school, he initially took an apprenticeship as a salesman, travelling across Western Germany selling agricultural products and grocery goods including coffee, tea and sugar. His encounters with Lenoir’s internal combustion engine saw him build and test an engine in 1862 that attempted to compress a fuel mixture prior to ignition – it lasted just a few minutes.

As with many successful innovations, however, it was collaboration that was key to the successful development of the Otto engine. In partnership with industrialist, Eugen Langen, a factory was set up that created first a successful atmospheric engine, and then in 1876 a compressed charge internal combustion engine. The engine used a four-stroke thermodynamic cycle process that has become known as the Otto cycle, turning chemical energy (gas) into thermal energy and then into kinetic energy. Otto’s method layers the fuel mixture, enabling it to combust in a more controlled manner, delivering a longer push of the piston rather than an explosive one.

Four piston strokes characterise the Otto cycle – one that acts as an intake for the fuel mixture, one that compresses it, one that ignites it and a final stroke that releases the exhaust gas. Over its development, the Otto engine became one of the first engines to use a spark plug, and a small magneto directly on the engine. It also used cylinder cooling, through a flowing water jacket around the cylinder wall, similar to the engine cooling systems we use today. It was efficient and relatively quiet, and in the 17 years following its development, over 50,000 engines were produced.

What would Otto and his team – which at various points of the engine’s development included Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and later Ettore Bugatti and Robert Bosch – have made of today’s electric, hybrid and autonomous vehicles I wonder? I like to think he would have embraced the challenge, and worked in partnership with experts (including us here at Frazer-Nash perhaps!) to investigate how to exchange their unused energy and storage capacity with the grid, how to make vehicles more sustainable, and ensure their production and decommissioning apply circular economic principles. If he could create the four-stroke engine with the engineering processes available during Victorian times, just imagine what he could have done with today’s modelling and computing tools!

Otto horizontal gas engineOtto horizontal gas engine, From New Catechism of the Steam Engine, 1904.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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