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Who Invented the Internal Combustion Engine? History, Facts, & FAQ

Internal Combustion Engine

It’s hard to imagine our lives without cars. They help us take the kids to school, get to work, and do grocery shopping. How do they work, though? The vast majority of vehicles on US roads are powered by internal combustion engines. And the very first commercial ICE was built by Etienne Lenoir. Then, 16 years later (in 1876), Nicolaus Otto invented the Otto engine, the “grandfather” of modern-day motors.

The very first concepts date back to the late 17th century, though. Over the years, internal combustion engines have proven to be equally reliable, durable, and cheap to build. They weren’t always like that, of course. Join us, and let’s talk about the past, present, and future of IC engines!

machinery divider

How Do Internal Combustion Engines Work?

It starts relatively simple: a valve opens, “feeding” fuel and air into the combustion chamber, forcing the piston to drop. Next, the piston goes back up, putting pressure on the fuel-air mix (controlled by the car’s ECM). Spark plugs take care of the third stage and ignite the mixture. That creates a controlled explosion inside the cylinder chamber, pushing the piston back down.

IC engines absorb the energy from the burning gasoline and transform it into torque, which makes the wheels turn and the vehicle move. The cycle repeats over and over again. The explosion produces toxic fumes, and it’s the piston’s job to go back up and direct them into the exhaust system. When you shut the engine off, the fuel-air mixture stops flowing into the chamber to create tiny explosions and rotate the wheels.

Internal Combustion Engine of a Motorcycle
Image By: Yakiv Korol, Shutterstock

So, Who Built These Engines?

Etienne Lenoir, a Belgian-French engineer, is widely recognized as the creator of the first commercially successful internal combustion engine (gas-fired). He brought it to life in 1860. The next big step in the evolution of IC motors was made possible in 1876 by a German engineer named Nicolaus Otto: he built the four-stroke motor. Now, while these motors have evolved since then, the core concept is still very much the same.

That’s exactly why the Otto unit is often called the progenitor of modern-day ICEs. However, before Otto and Lenoir, John Barber pioneered the gas turbine in 1791, paving the way for internal combustion engines. Three years later, the world saw the first gas engine (patented by Thomas Mead). That same year, Robert Street manufactured a petroleum-driven ICE. John Stevens built a similar unit in the US in 1798.

Perfecting the Formula

After Street and Stevens presented these concepts, their success inspired engineers in the EU to build their own motors. In 1807, the French launched a dust-explosion prototype. The project was financed by Napoleon. Around that same time, the Swiss managed to start a hydrogen-based ICE. In 1813, François Isaac de Rivaz, the man behind this invention, installed it into a four-wheeled wagon.

More than that, he managed to drive it for roughly 100 meters, which made this the first-ever documented use of an ICE in a vehicle. After that, IC engines started to slowly “take over”, powering carriages, boats, and even water pumping systems. The first stable and fully operational IC motor was built by two Italian engineers: Barsanti and Matteucci, in 1853. Lenoir’s gas-fired unit followed shortly after.

In 1872, George Brayton came up with the idea of liquid-fueled engines but the 2-stroke engines only came around in 1879. Compression-ignition motors were invented in 1892, while turbojet engines were introduced in 1939 (installed in the Heinkel He 178 jet). And as for piston-free IC engines, they were built in 1954 by Felix Wankel in Germany. So, who patented the first compact turbine engines? It was Ford, back in 1996.

Two Millennia in the Making

The engineers that built internal combustion engines relied heavily on discoveries from the past. For example, fire pistons were invented by the Chinese in 350 BC. In 220 BC, they pioneered hand-operated cranks. Connecting rods were designed in the 3rd century, while Al-Jazari put together the first crankshaft concepts in 1206. As we just learned, without a crankshaft, the wheels won’t turn!

In the 13th century, the Chinese surprised the world with yet another great invention: the rocket engine. The Arabs and the Mongols also played a part in that. Approximately 400 years later, Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch visionary, created what we today are calling the “gunpowder engine”. Continual-power engines were developed by Thomas Newcomen.

Finally, in the late 18th century, Alessandro Volta manufactured a voltaic pistol with a hydrogen-air mixture and an electric spark.

Have ICEs Evolved Over Time?

At the heart of 90% of the light vehicles sold each year are internal combustion engines. And the automobile industry is always trying to come up with something new and take the original concept to the next level, making it more effective, reliable, and safe. The concept is, indeed, evolving. For example, the latest IC motors produce less pollution than the older models.

On top of that, newer engines are stronger (more HP), reach 60mph faster, and are more fuel-efficient. Finally, modern piston engines compress the fuel before burning it; that wasn’t the case with older units.

How Long Do ICE Engines Last

Every engine is different, of course. The big players in the industry (Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and BMW) use similar technology to manufacture their trademark motors. Still, they’re all a bit different. This is important: luxury vehicles come packed with state-of-the-art engines that perform better and last longer. However, these days, even the cheapest sedans and trucks are packed with reliable, durable units.

When taken care of properly, these engines can keep the vehicle on the road for at least 10 years/150K miles. If you’re lucky, they will serve you for extra 2–3 years, or even more, going beyond the 200K miles mark. In most cases, modern engines last the life of the car. Electric motors last longer than any ICE, by the way (up to 15–20 years). You will have to replace the battery on such a system, though, and that will cost a pretty penny.

What Are the Alternatives to Internal Combustion Engines?

If you want to make the transition to electric motors as smooth as possible, consider upgrading to a hybrid gas-electric system. This way, you’ll get to experience first-hand how EVs behave while still having that trusty gas engine at your disposal. Or, if you’re ready to embrace the new tech, a plug-in hybrid will be a better pick. It’s the golden middle between a “traditional” hybrid powertrain and all-out, battery-only electric cars.

Still not sure electric motors are up your alley? Then how about changing the fuel? We’re talking about ethanol, propane, and biodiesel. While these options aren’t nearly as widespread (and they can be rather expensive in some parts of the country), they’re worth checking out. This is especially true for biodiesel and ethanol, as they’re both renewable energy sources.

Will ICE Engines Fall Into the Abyss?

World governments are on a mission to end internal combustion engine use. For example, the European Union has voted to ban ICEs by 2035. That’s right: in about 13 years, you won’t be able to buy a car with such a motor in any of the 27 EU countries. This ban applies both to petrol and diesel cars. The reason behind this is obvious: climate change.

The Union’s goal is to keep CO2 emissions to a minimum to achieve carbon neutrality: switching to electric engines is the quickest way to do that. And what about the United States? Over here, each state is on its own for now. California is following the EU’s lead and is also committed to reducing emissions to zero. Most likely, the other states will soon do the same.

machinery divider

Conclusion

Internal combustion engines have been around for centuries, and today, it’s very hard to imagine our lives without them. Now, it was Etienne Lenoir who patented the world’s first ICE. However, this was only made possible thanks to the contribution of many bright scientists and engineers from the past. It all started thousands of years ago, and modern-day manufacturers are still finding ways to perfect the technology.

This is especially true for Toyota, Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen. And even though electric motors are slowly but steadily taking over the market, internal combustion engines are still leading the charge. They’re efficient, reliable, and have a decent lifespan. Regular maintenance and conscious driving—that’s all these engines need to keep going!


Featured Image Credit: Radu Bercan, Shutterstock

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