Year of Invention: 1878
What Is It? An engine to burn fossil fuel to create mechanical motion.
Who Invented It? Nikolaus Otto (in Germany)
The steam engine powered the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The internal combustion engine made possible the industrial and transportation revolution of the twentieth century. Automobiles, trucks, airplanes, engines for factories and for pumping—it seems that internal combustion engines powered every facet of the twentieth century.
The internal combustion engine reshaped the way we live, the way we organize cities and the nation, the way we work, the way we move and transport raw and manufactured goods. It made suburban sprawl possible, spawned freeways and highways, and created the smog that has plagued our cities.
James Watt invented the steam engine. But visionary inventors had long dreamed of other means of creating mechanical power. Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in the seventeenth century experimented with piston engines powered by gunpowder. The experiment didn’t work. It, literally, blew up in his face. In 1824, French physicist Sadi Carnot described the principles of an internal combustion engine in a paper but did not attempt to build one.
Then the world’s first oil well was dug in 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. They called the black goo that gurgled out of the ground “rock oil.” The men who drilled those first wells separated two valuable products from rock oil: lubricants and kerosene for lamps. The rest (principally gasoline) they considered useless and dangerous. They burned it as waste.