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The Internal Combustion Engine

The internal combustion engine did for personal transport what the microchip did for computing. Put simply, it raised the game to a new level of affordability, efficiency and performance. However, this was far from instant, with the very first internal combustion engine being a poor cousin to the much more developed steam engine.

There are records showing rudimentary internal combustion engines as far back as the 17th century with Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens designing a gunpowder engine, using a vertical piston pushed by a gunpowder explosion and drawn back by gravity. Although there is evidence to suggest it was built and worked, it was never efficient enough to go into production.

Early internal combustion engines were developed with varying success, but it wasn’t until man started to drill for oil on a commercial scare in the 1850s that the internal combustion engine had a chance. By this point the steam engine was already well established.

Brayton EngineVarious inventors contributed to different elements of the internal combustion engine, from Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci inventing the four-stroke concept in the 1850s, through to George Brayton who developed the first saleable liquid fuelled internal combustion engine. All of these inventors, businessmen and visionaries built the knowledge base for a handful very important individuals to bring the engine to a whole new level.

Successful inventor Nikolaus Otto, who had already contributed greatly to the development of the internal combustion engine started working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. This partnership lead to the first universally used four-stroke cycle in the late 1870s.

At a similar time the first two stroke engine was being designed by Scottish engineer Dugald Clerk. Just a year later in Germany Karl Benz also designed a workable two-stroke engine.

One of the biggest leaps towards the engine becoming usable in an automotive fashion was by British engineer Edward Butler. He constructed one of the first petrol powered engines also putting forward his own spark plugs, carburettor, magneto and ignition coil.

How the internal combustion engine works

The vast array of layouts and developments of the internal combustion engine means there is no one answer to “how does the internal combustion engine work”. However, since its invention, one basic principle remains firmly at its foundation, which is that you mix fuel with air and then blow it up! The expansion of gasses will create a force, which in turn creates the motion required.

Although the application of this foundation comes in many forms, there are several common forms:

Four stroke petrol engines

Suck, squeeze, bang, blow. The most common approach for the internal combustion engine with classic cars and motorcycles. Continue reading>>

Two stroke petrol engines

Although used for some classic cars, this is more common amongst motorcycles. Continue reading>>

Diesel engines

Traditionally placed for commercial and off-road use with classic vehicles. Wider use growing in recent years. Continue reading>>

Wankel rotary engines

You spin me right round, baby right round. A less common yet effective approach for the internal combustion engine. Continue reading>>

Jet and gas turbine engines

Many have tried. Few have succeeded. A powerful, if thirsty, approach, which has never succeeded to take a real place with cars and bikes. Continue reading>>

First automotive use

The internal combustion engine has continued to develop in design, use and efficiency since its inception. However, it wasn’t until it could be used as a contained compact unit that its use really took off.

Edward Butler engineFamously, it is Karl Benz, who is generally recognized as the inventor of the modern automobile in 1885 (patented in 1886), by using an internal combustion engine on his three-wheeled Motorwagen.

However, in 1884, British inventor Edward Butler, showed a smaller three-wheeled vehicle at the Stanley Cycle Show in London, also powered by an internal combustion engine.

Gottlieb Daimler also played a vital role, by essentially inventing the motorcycle in 1885, when he designed a simple vehicle called the riding wagon (Reitwagen) to demonstrate a smaller version of the latest engine designed by Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

A couple of months after the Motorwagen was patented by Karl Benz in 1886, both Daimler and Maybach created the first four-wheeled motorcar.

Of course these “first car” titles ignore the earlier steam and electric car inventions.

Engine History for cars and motorcycles



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