SENIOR CLASSICS FLASHBACK
As you tool around in your classic car or motorcycle (or dream of it, at least!),
perhaps it is good to look back occasionally and learn about the people who
made your dream possible.
Certainly the engine, motorbike or automobile—like Rome—were not built in
a single day, nor by one inventor.
Submit photos (eAttachments) and short tributes (100 words or less)
via email or send printed copies to:
ATTN: SENIOR CLASSICS
PO Box 2630
Grapevine, TX 76051
The best entries each month will be featured in this eFeature. Winners will
be notified in advance and will receive a MyBestYears.com Windbreaker.
No submissions or photos will be returned. All results of MyBestYears.com
judges and editors will be final.
When you listen to the purr of an engine or admire the glistening chrome on your gas-
eating beauty, you enjoy the metallic fruit of a worldwide evolution by people with similar
dreams, dating back to the first known plans for a motor vehicle that were drawn by no
less than Leonardo da Vinci and later by Sir Isaac Newton.
It is estimated, for example, that the creation of the modern engine and automobile
represents over 100,000 patents. Nobody knows the exact amount. And if that fact seems
hazy, get ready for lots of haziness as you look back over the time-line that led to the first
moment when you put your hands on the steering wheel and began that incredible
relationship with your own two- and four-wheeled wonders.
On this point, however, most automobile historians agree: The inventor of the internal
combustion engine—a four-stroke engine with compressed charge that began as an idea
in 1861 and was built by 1876—is due to a man named Nicolaus Otto.
Prior to this time, a French mechanic and engineer, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, had produced
a steam engine for what is considered to be the first self-propelled road vehicle, a military
tractor. Used by the French Army to haul artillery, the three-wheeled behemoth could only
do a blazing 2.5 miles per hour, hampered by the additional problem that it had to stop
every quarter hour to allow more steam power to build up.
As a footnote, Cugnot was not only
the inventor of the first self-
propelled road vehicle, but he also
had the first known motor vehicle
accident. In 1771, he drove his
lumbering steam-powered tractor
into a stone wall.
Moving forward, a number of
people began realizing that extremely heavy steam engines, while eventually very useful
for railroad locomotives and boats, probably were not the wave of the future for road
Enter Nicolaus Otto. Born in 1832, he went to school until he was Another was a fascination with all things mechanical. This dream was fueled by a
sixteen, then began working as a grocery store clerk. That led to
a youthful career as a salesman traveling through the western
part of Germany selling such goods as rice, tea, sugar and
OTTO'S TWO GREAT DESIRES
During the next few years, the happy-go-lucky young man
developed two major desires.
One was Ann, whom he met in Cologne when he was 26. He
knew in order to marry her he would need to make more money
than he could with his sales career.
newspaper article he read about Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir, a Frenchman who was
conducting experiments with the combustion engine.
According to Kurt Rathke, the well-known Otto biographer, the young German began
exploring the idea of building his own engine. The possibilities for such a relatively
lightweight engine (compared to the massive steam-driven ones) seemed endless,
perhaps even to power horse-drawn carriages and small factories.
UP IN SMOKE
The epiphany apparently came during 1860, as Otto sat on a park bench near a factory.
Smoke billowed from the factory’s chimney.
Wrote Rathke, “In his youthful enthusiasm he thought of this day and night.”
Those thoughts focused on the chimney as a combustion chamber, with fire inside fueling
the power it would take to make an engine workable.
"He decided that the place of explosion in a gas engine,” explained Rathke, “which he
likened to the chimney, should receive a rich fuel mixture. His idea was to let only fresh air
enter first and fall down on unburned gases from the previous working stroke. Only then
should the gas mixture be inducted."
The young man’s first attempts were failures, at best, but his
drive and vision came to the attention of Eugen Langen, owner
of a sugar factory. The two men became partners of N.A. Otto
& Cie., which would become the first engine company in the world
(a forerunner of today's Daimler conglomerate). Their two-stroke
version of the engine won a gold medal at the 1867 World’s Fair
Otto, in 1876, is generally acknowledged to have first built the
first practical high-compression, four-stroke engine with an
ignition device. It was patented (no. 365,701) in 1877. In the
next ten years, over 30,000 of the engine were sold.
Otto’s patent was revoked in 1886, when he was challenged by
Aphonse Beu de Rochas, a French engineer, who owned an
earlier patent for a different version of the four-stroke engine.
However, Rochas design was on paper, while Otto was However,
it is generally acknowledged that Otto, not Rochas, developed the first practical model of
Though he never became directly involved in automobile
manufacturing, his pioneering efforts marked the
beginning and worldwide spread of an entirely new era of
the modern gasoline engine that would power
automobiles, trucks, farm implements, motorcycles and
motorboats around the globe. Even the diesel engine is
built on a four stroke, internal combustion system similar
to Otto’s. In addition, Otto later developed the first
magneto ignition system.
He died January 26, 1891, at age 59, but not before he
married Ann and established one of the most important
developments in engine design.
So, the next time you slide under the steering wheel, turn the ignition keys and thrill at the
familiar deep-throated sound of your wheeled-wonder’s engine, remember the man who
was one of the first of a long line of pioneers who helped give you that lifelong thrill of gas-
fumes, roaring exhausts, fender skirts and everything else celebrated in this SENIOR
CLASSICS eFeature—Nicolaus Otto!