Though there have been an incredible amount of inventions throughout human history that have quite literally changed the face of humanity, few of them have had the same kind of transformative impact that the internal combustion engine has had.
Originally invented in the middle of the third century in Asia minor (with a more modern internal combustion engine showing its face around the middle of the 1850s), this amazing invention has brought the world together in ways that most never could have anticipated.
Quite literally pulling all corners of the globe together as one, internal combustion engines and the vehicles and machinery that they power have made industry possible. That in turn, has literally built our modern world.
Who knows where we would be today without the invention of the internal combustion engine.
While the construction components and complexity of the modern day combustion engine are significantly different than the original iterations of this machine, the general purpose of this device remains the same. Their basic job is to automate power for human use, and to transfer that power to a variety of different applications.
It’s a game changer for sure.
A little bit of history regarding the internal combustion engine
As mentioned above, the very first integration of the internal combustion engine was believed to have been created somewhere in the middle of the third century AD. We are talking about somewhere between 200 AD and 299 AD.
The example that historians point to is the Hierapolis sawmill in Asia Minor (then a part of the ancient Roman Empire). This amazing piece of machinery used a variety of very simple machines to create a complex mechanism similar to the systems that we see today. This was all in an effort to industrialize the production of building materials.
Other examples of early combustion engines include those created by Roman engineers in the fifth century A.D., as well as those that took advantage of crankshaft technology in 1206. By the 17th century, Asian scientists were beginning to experiment with using gunpowder to power up their water pumps. This was a system that was eventually imported to the palace of Versailles and responsible for running the fountains and dictation systems that were littered throughout the grounds.
The early 1800s saw a tremendous amount of interest in this form of engine, but it wasn’t until around 1860 that things really started to kick off. The very first gasoline fired internal combustion engine was created by Edward Butler. By 1861 the first patent for a four-cycle engine went on record.
In 1862, the Germans began to experiment with no compression gasoline engines using a “free cylinder”, and then in 1865 the French produced a ridiculously fuel-efficient internal combustion engine that put all others to shame.
By 1872 in American by the name of George Brayton invented his “Ready Motor”, becoming one of the very first commercially available liquid fuel internal combustion engines on the planet. This went into full speed ahead production, and helped to push the industrial age in America a bit further into the future.
1876 was the year that Nikolaus Otto (working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach) came out with a new iteration of the four cycle engine, a platform that would later become a universal part of pretty much every four stroke engine from then on.
Things really started to take off when internal combustion engine components were strapped to “horseless carriages”, kicking off the automobile industry as we know it today. Iteration after iteration produced incredible improvements in fuel efficiency as well as overall power and torque possible, until we landed at the amazing pieces of machinery that we have before us today.
How internal combustion engines actually work
The premise behind these amazing pieces of equipment is rather simple and straightforward.
All you have to do is point a small amount of fuel into a very small enclosed space. Then mix it with just the right amount of oxygen. Then ignite the mixture. The incredible force and energy of that explosion is going to propel the piston to move in the opposite direction with an equal amount of force. When tied to a crankshaft that is tied to other pistons that are appropriately timed, the internal combustion engine that we all know and love today is established.
It is a tremendously simple and straightforward solution to a very complex problem. How do you exponentially multiply the amount of force necessary to accomplish all of the modern marvels that we enjoy today?
Internal combustion engines operate based off of the same principles that they did all the way back in the third century A.D., and they likely always will. The science behind these solutions is rock solid, the engineering impressive, and the only real improvement left is to find a way to make the actual combustion of the fuel air mixture in the cylinders more efficient than it currently is.
While fuel efficiency has risen exponentially in the last few years (especially over the last 50 years or so), we still have a long way to go.
At the same time, internal combustion engines may be giving way to alternative fuel sources like electricity (from batteries as well as from solar panels mounted directly on the vehicle). It’s interesting to see the kind of future that the automobile industry is going to uncover in the coming decades.
It’s unlikely that the internal combustion engine is ever going to disappear completely, but then again, there were individuals who believed that horses would always be the main mode of transportation for humans and goods.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the future holds for this amazing and transformative piece of technology, but things are as exciting today as they must have been when the very first gasoline-based engine was fired up for the first time.
The future of internal combustion is most likely in the fuel choices. There is already a push toward more clean diesel engines. The future will most likely see clean diesel-electric hybrids, biofuel engines, and other fuels such as CNG.
There are even some that are developing internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen. It seems like after the Hindenburg, it’s going to be hard to try to sell the public on a car that carries around a high pressure tank full of hydrogen. Stranger things have happened though.