Suicide, accident or murder? The last day of Rudolf Diesel’s life reads like an Agatha Christie novel. Guy Baker tries to get to the bottom of what really happened to the inventor of the diesel engine.
Nearly a hundred years ago, on 29 September 1913, a small luxury steam ship called the SS Dresden set sail from Antwerp, bound for England. On board was none other than Doctor Rudolf Diesel himself. But although the boat successfully completed the journey unhindered, the celebrated inventor of the diesel engine never arrived in England. Instead he disappeared in mysterious circumstances, halfway across the English Channel.
Exactly what happened that night has never been fully explained. Ten days later, a body – too decomposed to ever be properly identified – was found floating in the North Sea, and personal items suggested that it could be Rudolf Diesel. His death was officially recorded as a suicide, yet to this day many believe that Rudolf diesel actually met his demise at the hands of a person or persons unknown – murdered in cold blood.
In the beginning…
In contrast to the chilling uncertainty that shrouded his death, Rudolf’s early family life was a good deal more measured. Born in Paris in 1858, he was the second of three children, and lived happily in France with his German immigrant parents Theodor and Elise Diesel until he was twelve years old. However the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 caused his family to seek safety in Britain, while his parents decided to send young Rudolf to live with his aunt and uncle instead in Augsburg, Bavaria.
After a couple of years in the local Industrial School, Rudolf received a scholarship to the Polytechnikum in Munich to study thermodynamics under Professor Carl von Lind. They struck up a friendship and after graduating Rudolf went to work with von Linde at a refrigeration plant in Paris. This close working relationship continued and Rudolf returned to Berlin in 1890 to develop alternative engine applications under the umbrella of von Linde’s corporate research programmes. And it was here – in conjunction with German manufacturing giant MAN (Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nürnberg) AG – that he developed his 1893 ‘Rational Heat-engine’ – the first proper diesel engine. Created to replace less efficient steam engines, the first working prototype appeared in 1897, and over the next 16 years MAN, Krupp and other German manufacturers produced hundreds of diesel engines for all sorts of industrial and transport applications, culminating in July 1913 with the commissioning of the first diesel-engined German U-boat.
Rudolf never lived to see World War I, but between 1914 and 1918 360 German U-boats, predominately powered by MAN diesel engines, sank more than 11million tons of allied shipping – and came perilously close to turning the tide of the War. A heavy legacy; one which might have troubled Rudolf immensely had he lived to see it, but also one he couldn’t possibly have predicted as he returned to sleep in his cabin on the night of 29 September 1913. In good spirits by all accounts, he had enjoyed an evening chatting and joking with other passengers on the luxurious SS Dresden and asked to be woken at 6.15am. The next morning his cabin was found empty and 55 year-old Rudolf was never seen alive again.
Almost immediately stories began to circulate that he had been murdered, and there were a number of possible motives suggested. He had been intending to visit the Consolidated Diesel Manufacturing company in London, who had been tasked with providing diesel engines for the British Royal Navy. Was Rudolf murdered by the German secret service to prevent the British from using his expertise? Another theory suggested that shady oil or coal company executives could have wanted him dead, as his new diesel engines – which could be run on vegetable-based oils – were damaging their businesses.
Yet another hypothesis suggested that Rudolf was simply murdered by someone on board for the ideas held within the paperwork he had brought on board with him. We’ll never know for sure, but given the clandestine machinations of many industrial giants at the time, and the ruthless preparations for war that were going on across Europe, the case for murder cannot be ruled out. But there are other, less dramatic possibilities too. Rudolf’s bed had not been slept in and his suitcase appeared to be untouched, leading to the belief that he may simply have gone for a walk and accidentally fallen overboard. A ship’s slippery deck can be an especially dangerous place at night, and although the sea was relatively calm, it had been raining. If Rudolf had fallen into the Channel, no one would have heard his calls. He might also have had some kind of late-night disagreement with a fellow passenger, and been thrown overboard as the result of a fight, although there was little suggestion of this at the time.
Perhaps the least likely explanation should be suicide, although that’s the conclusion that the original investigators came to. They pointed to the fact that over-worked Rudolf had suffered a great deal of ill health in preceding years, including eyesight problems, mood swings and depression, and he had apparently even been declared bankrupt at one point. But no suicide note had been left behind; he had seemed in a happy mood earlier that evening and was reportedly looking forward to his meeting in London. The family never accepted the official verdict of suicide. What is certain is that 10 days later a badly decomposed body was found floating in the North Sea, with a number of personal possessions including a wallet and some rings which were identified by Rudolf’s son Eugen as having belonged to his father. The body itself however could not be identified.
Perhaps most surprisingly, evidence for all possible explanations is very limited. And given the time that’s passed it’s now extremely unlikely that we’ll ever know exactly what happened. But whatever fate befell the famous German inventor that night, one thing is beyond doubt – his brilliant invention changed the world forever.