The Rockefeller/Rudolf Diesel murder theory is full of holes

rudolf diesel inventor

Born in 1858, Rudolf Diesel was a polymath. Capable of bringing people to tears with his fine piano playing, he was also an artist, a social philosopher, and, of course, the engineer and inventor who turned theoretical thermodynamics into the most efficient internal-combustion engine still yet developed: The diesel engine. However, his life ended in suspicious circumstances: Made wealthy by his invention, and by all accounts still in love with his wife Martha, he either fell, jumped, or was pushed overboard and drowned while traveling by boat on September 29, 1913, on the eve of World War I.

One reason why Diesel developed his compression-ignition engine was to give access to engine power to places in the world that didn’t have access to coal or petroleum. Diesel engines will run on just about any kind of oil, including vegetable and nut oils, as well as coal tar derived from coal and kerosene refined from petroleum.

mysterious case of rudolf diesel book review
Simon & Schuster / Atria Books

In a recent book, The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel (Atria Books, 2023), author Douglas Brunt raises the possibility, also apparently raised at the time of Diesel’s death, that the inventor’s demise was not an accident: Either petroleum interests, i.e. billionaire John D. Rockefeller Sr., or international intrigue, i.e. Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany, were involved in Diesel’s disappearance.

Rudolf Diesel as a younger man

While the book seems to be a decent biography of Diesel, and covers the development of his engine without getting too technical, there are some nagging problems. I’m not convinced that Brunt really understands how piston engines work, though there’s a diagram of a four-cycle diesel in the book’s appendix. A couple of times Brunt refers to “driving the gears” of an engine, not of a transmission. That’s just a minor issue; there are greater problems with aspects of the book’s main premise—that Diesel was murdered by forces working for one of two powerful men—at least, when you consider one of those men and recorded history.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (1859 – 1941) in military uniform, circa 1900. Estate of Emil Bieber/Klaus Niermann/Getty Images)

The Kaiser Wilhelm II part of the conspiracy theory is based on the fact that, by 1912, Diesel, who was ethnically German but partially raised in Paris, was unhappy with his original German partner/licensee, the MAN company of Augsburg, and was developing his technology to be used by Great Britain. In 1912, Diesel co-founded the Consolidated Diesel Engine Company in Ipswich and gave a speech in London about the value of diesel power to Britain—at nearly the exact same time that Winston Churchill, who was then in charge of the Admiralty, gave a speech about converting the British Navy from steam to diesel power. At the time, Wilhelm was challenging British sea power by growing the German navy, including a variety of diesel-powered U-boat submarines.

Diesel’s Third Engine, the first demonstration engine. Single cylinder, four-stroke, water-cooled, air injection of fuel. Output: 14.7 kW (20 hp). Fuel consumption: 317 g/kWh (238 g/hp-hr). Efficiency: 26.2%. Number of revolutions: 172/min. Displacement volume: 19.6 L. Bore: 250 mm (4″). Stroke: 400 mm (16″).

Early 20th-century geopolitics is not one of my fields of study, so I can’t really speak to the probability that the Kaiser made Rudolf Diesel sleep with the fishes, but I’m a bit more familiar with automotive history, and am better equipped to speak to the Rockefeller theory. To be frank, this theory reminds me of an urban legend, which holds that Rockefeller supported Prohibition because he didn’t want alcohol to replace gasoline as a fuel.

The Rockefeller part of Brunt’s argument is based on two successive and supposed threats—electric cars, then Diesel’s flexible-fuel engine—to Rockefeller’s business empire, which was based on his monopoly of the petroleum industry in America.

In the very early days of the automobile, steam and electric power did compete with gasoline, but by 1913 Stanley was selling fewer than 500 Steamers annually. EVs weren’t doing so hot either. None of the leading electric-car manufacturers were meeting anywhere near the production figures that Ford Motor Company, for example, was putting out in 1908, before the Model T was introduced.

Thomas Edison Henry Ford whisper
October 21, 1921. American engineer and inventor Henry Ford (left) whispering to Thomas Alva Edison at the observance of the 50th anniversary of Edison’s incandescent light in Greenfield Village, Michigan. Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Electric cars, though, received renewed interest, at least for a little while, when Henry Ford invested about $1.5 million 1914-era dollars (nearly $43M today) into developing an electric Model T. Ford hoped that his friend and former employer Thomas Edison’s new batteries, which used nickel-iron chemistry, would prove to be practical for use in EVs.

Brunt attributes the failure of Ford’s attempt to mass-produce an electric version of the Model T to a “mysterious” fire at Edison’s plant in West Orange, New Jersey. Brunt strongly implies that the fire could have been the work of the Pinkerton detective agency working for Rockefeller. The connection between the agency and Rockefeller isn’t far-fetched: Part of the Pinkertons’ notorious reputation was gained working as union-busters for Rockefeller. The argument that the fire doomed the electric Model T, though, is shaky.

The Ford-Edison electric Model T failed because Ford’s engineers couldn’t get it to work well enough in Detroit, not because of any mysterious fire in New Jersey. To begin with, Edison’s storage battery plant and R&D lab were not damaged in the fire, and the electrified Model T was developed in Michigan, not in New Jersey; Edison simply supplied the cells. Ford had already bought 100,000 or so batteries for the project, more than enough for the few prototypes that were made. Low energy-density and long charging times, the same challenges EV batteries face today, doomed the project: When Henry found out his R&D team had replaced his good friend Edison’s batteries with conventional lead-acid cells to improve the car’s performance, he killed the project. That was very much like Henry Ford: When all of the FWD Miller-Fords DNF’d at Indy in 1935, Henry killed the program. He didn’t like being embarrassed.

John D. Rockefeller in 1914 Wikipedia

Soon after Ford abandoned the EV effort, Brunt says that the automaker swung the market towards combustion cars by cutting the T’s price to $500. Charles Kettering’s development of the electric self-starter further cemented the dominance of ICE cars. According to Brunt, though, after Ford’s actions supposedly killed off early EVs, Rockefeller’s interests were threatened once again, by Diesel’s engine, which because it could run on plant and other combustible oils, and therefore did not rely exclusively on kerosene. Brunt is quite right about the flexibility of Diesel’s design: When Diesel first demonstrated the first fully operational prototype, his third engine, in 1897, it ran on peanut oil. But what Brunt overestimates is the market’s ability to supply alternative fuels, like plant oils, in sufficient quantities.

Rockefeller originally established his market dominance by selling kerosene and natural gas for lighting. Edison and Westinghouse changed all that, of course, but the spark-ignited Otto cycle engine created a market for a not-very-useful byproduct of refining kerosene that was called gasoline. Rockefeller became even wealthier and more powerful. At the turn of the 20th century, as Diesel’s engine design was being licensed and proliferating as an industrial power source, Rockefeller already had a vertically integrated monopoly capable of producing and marketing either gasoline or kerosene. There was no similar industry set up to make and distribute plant oils on a massive scale.

With the investments needed at that time to manufacture those non-petroleum oils on an industrial level, there was no way that the development of diesel power for transportation would challenge the dominance of petroleum. In the century since then, as the use of diesel engines in transportation has spread globally, no country has embraced running engines en masse on anything other than petroleum-based fuels.

Also, the timeline doesn’t work out. Ford started hyping the electric T in late 1913, going public with announcements in early 1914, at a time when Ford Motor Company was already selling hundreds of thousands of cars annually. In 1913, FoMoCo sold over 170,000 Model Ts; the following year, it sold over 200,000. Henry didn’t need to lower to price of the T to dominate the market. True, when he lowered the price of a Model T Runabout from $525 in 1913 to $440, an 18 percent drop in price, sales rose a proportionate 18 percent. However, after Ford raised the price of the T from $345 in 1916 back up to $500 in 1917, sales went up by almost 47 percent, a much more dramatic increase.

It’s hard to find production figures for early EV companies, but it appears that the best-selling electric car in the early automotive age was the Detroit Electric. Two widely divergent figures are cited for total production (1907 to 1939): 13,000 or 35,000 cars. Henry Ford may have invested the equivalent of today’s millions in an electric Model T, but when he did that, electric cars already made up a tiny percentage of the cars in use. Combustion engine cars were dominating the market long before Ford even tried making an electric Model T.

In addition, at the time of Diesel’s death, his engines hadn’t yet been adapted for use in personal vehicles. Though Rudolph Diesel originally envisioned his engine as a compact powerplant, in 1913, it was still being used to power industrial equipment or large ships. These were very large engines, in some cases the size of a small house. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that Clessie Cummins developed the first practical and relatively compact diesel engines for road transportation—in his case, for over-the-road trucks, and not until 1936 did Mercedes-Benz introduce the first diesel-powered automobile. In 1913, no matter whether Rudolf Diesel drowned accidentally, committed suicide, or was murdered, John Rockefeller’s petroleum-based empire could not have been threatened by diesel-powered cars and trucks running on peanut oil or coal tar: There were no diesel-powered cars or trucks in 1913.

While Douglas Brunt tells a good story, it doesn’t appear likely that John Rockefeller actually had any motive to have Rudolf Diesel killed.




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    These theories’ are crazy. It was so early in the development of the auto that few has any idea what was going to take over. Heck steam was also a front runner at this time too.

    But the auto has generated many conspiracies over the last century and 98% of them are pure craziness.

    I always loved how the Oil Companies bought up the super secret carbs GM and Ford or even the Fish that got 100 MPG to the gallon. Now think about this with the billions upon billion spent on the downsizing of cars and the downsizing of engines and now EV models that they would not have used the carb themselves as they could never have been paid enough to give it up.

    Now some are true like how GM pushed to kill the tolly cars in most cities. They pushed the bus as to sell more buses. Some like to act like that was a crime but imagine many cities today crowed with trolleys on top of traffic.

    Each company has lobbied for specific products and tech that was to their advantage but no 100 MPG cars of real use were involved or even killings outside of Henry Ford enforcers in the early days. If that were true Ralph Nadar would be a memory.

    Neil Armstrong is still on the moon! They left him there so he couldn’t tell the story of what he knew about aliens impersonating humans (and of course, the “person” that returned from the moon WAS actually an alien that morphed itself to look like Armstrong).

    There was an engine developed in 1974 that ran on either seawater or dirt – all one had to do was flip a switch on the dash! But it was quashed by OPEC so they could continue to domineer the world’s petroleum and thus keep us under their economic thumbs.

    Atlantis isn’t really a “lost continent”! It was teleported to the far side of Mars in 843 B.C. by members of the Musk Dynasty and made into a secret getaway destination for the very wealthy. The family records, hidden in a vault for centuries, were discovered by Elon and that is why he’s in such a hurry to get a Mars shuttle service up and running again.

    From the story that I heard, NASA actually did ask Stanley Kubrick if he could fake a moon landing. He told them that he could, but that it would have to be a location shot.
    I have more patience for flat-earthers than I do for moon landing hoax conspiracy theorists.

    Being a former Diesel mechanic, I have done some studying into the life of Mr. Diesel. One of the issues that Diesel had was that the difference between the Diesel engine and the Otto engine were very technical (there were compression ignition variants of the Otto powerplant), and Diesel spent much of his life and money battling patent issues. The other thing was that as loving as his wife was, she also loved to spend. Diesel spent most of his later years grazing the treetops of financial disaster.

    Many have followed this parts.

    Many were great inventors but most failed at the business end.

    Just look at the number of failed automakers. Even Ford failed before he made it work.

    It helps when the inventor/entrepreneur has a partner/backer who understands business. We’d have never heard of Honda if it wasn’t for Honda’s business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, who convinced him to make the Super Cub 50cc motorbike, the most successful motor vehicle in history instead of trying to win the Isle of Mann. Clessie Cummins had his original backer Wm Irwin and Irwin’s nephew J. Irwin Miller.

    “No country has embraced running engines en masse on anything other than petroleum-based fuels.” During the 1970’s petroleum crisis, almost everything in Brazil ran on sugar-based alcohol for a while.

    Point taken, but as you noted it was only “for a while”. We can find examples of using wood gas generators and synthetic fuels, as in wartime Nazi Germany, but those substitutes for petroleum all seem to be temporary, stopgap measures.

    The photo of Ford and Edison: Ford wasn’t whispering to Edison. Edison was deaf. I would guess that Ford was that close (even touching) and quite loud so that Edison could hear.

    I just finished the book. You left out he defected to UK and built advanced diesel engines for subs in Canada during the war. Perhaps.

    I was going to post something similar. He obviously didn’t read the last 50 pages of the book. Brunt’s explanation makes a lot of sense and there are a lot circumstial factors that back it up.

    Exactly! Brunt dismissed the murder theory entirely. This article author clearly didn’t finish the book.

    Exactly! Brunt dismissed the murder theory entirely. This article author clearly didn’t finish the book.

    Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Rothchild, 1913 the sinking of the Titanic, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the IRS, The FBI. The Creature from Jekyl Island, WW1 around the corner. You can bet their is foul play in Diesel’s death, just as the people on the Titanic that opposed the formation of the Federal Reserve.

    Diesel may have seen a future where Oldsmobile converted a gasoline engine to diesel that failed miserably, and he jumped to his death.

    I tend to favour the notion that Diesel either committed suicide because of finances or died accidently. The conspiracy by either Kaiser Wilhelm or Rockefeller is just reaching at straws. As for the comment made regarding trolly cars being killed throughout North America by GM, they did not succeed in Toronto which still runs Streetcars. In fact, they just received about 60 new ones in November 2023. They work quite well with city traffic there and also have routes which are linked with the bus, subway and train services, much in the same manner as a number of European cities still successfully do.

    Streetcars most likely would have died out in the US anyway with suburban sprawl. Other than a few places like NYC, the US doesn’t have the problem of having to build densely populated expensive buildings on expensive scarce land. Can you imagine a massive streetcar system in a place like Dallas/Fort Worth? I mean we have one, but it’s a few miles in downtown Dallas.

    According to Robert Nietsze’s fantastic book: “Rudolph Diesel Pioneer in the Age of Power”, Herr Diesel had big problems by the time he boarded the Ferry on that fateful day.
    Besides being in constant pain from a horrible case of gout, having injection problems which were only just starting to be solved by Prosper De’ L’Orange, and later Robert Bosch; but mostly by the endless streams of crooks and con men who took endless advantage of a rather naive and trusting soul until finally the patent rights to his famous “Black Mistress” were gone to pay for his fabulous Munich “Mausoleum “, (his term for the mansion he shared with his beloved Martha.
    Add to this his personal history as a young boy of seeing his father cut his grandfather down from a tree in a park in Paris after the patriarch had also committed suicide and it is clear that the dye was cast early on.
    Leave us NEVER forget a couple of interesting points of Rudolph’s life (which is far more a cause for study then his death)
    The man went to work for 10 years trying to prove a thermodynamic theory in a practice only to be constantly missing this piece or that until one fateful day the machine popped against the massive compressor needed to both compress the charge air and introduce a useable fuel, (also found by Diesel), none other than Beer King Adolphus Busch financed a good deal of the project incidentally.
    Also before the practical Diesel engine build, Rudolph diesel with Carl Von Linde built an ice maker, ( another amazing feat) but was unfortunately never successful because, “it was a cold winter in the Alps and there was no need”!!!
    Sadly it always seems to happen that the money changers end up with all the gold and the honest hard working geniuses get taken advantage of.

    The MAN Company mentioned near the beginning article is still an OEM supplier of diesel engines to the marine industry, including the recreational segment. At the article states, the main reason for the death of electric cars were that they could not compete in range or conveniece (that charging thing, again) against gas engined cars. The final death blow for them was the electric starter, which eliminated dangerous hand-cranking of the gas engines. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

    There’s also the matter of the fact that the most efficient source of diesel is refining it from oil. Rockefeller would have made money selling diesel fuel too.

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