The strange death of Rudolf Diesel

The inventor of the diesel engine died at sea under mysterious and still unexplained circumstances.

SS Dresden
Harry J. Jansen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(An opening warning: in case you hadn’t guessed by the title, this post discusses suicide. I originally promised to write about Diesel’s death in the post on surprising eponyms.)

In 1913, aboard the SS Dresden on the way from Antwerp to London, Rudolf Diesel had dinner and retired to his cabin. He left an instruction to be woken up at 6:15 the next morning. When the wake-up call came, Diesel was not in his cabin; his bunk was undisturbed; and he was never seen alive again.

The ship was searched: there was no sign of Diesel. He must have gone overboard. His overcoat was found (neatly folded) underneath a railing near the rear of the ship, but there were no witnesses and no other physical evidence.

A week and a half later a body was found floating in the ocean near Norway. Ten days in the sea had rendered it unidentifiable, but various items found with the body were Diesel’s. The sailors who found the body returned it to the ocean; it showed up further south another week later, but was once again not picked up.

So, what happened? The most obvious explanation is suicide, and some additional evidence points that way: before departing the continent, Diesel gave his wife a bag and told her to open it one week later. Inside she found a huge pile of money, more than a million in today’s US dollars. He had cleared out all his bank accounts.

Given the time and circumstances of his death, however, conspiracy theories have flourished. Tensions between Germany and the United Kingdom had been building for a decade (especially in terms of the two powers’ naval capabilities) and of course war would erupt within a year. Diesel was apparently on his way to London to talk about how diesel engines could be used in British submarines – or so newspapers at the time speculated. Another possibility was that oil companies felt threatened by his experiments with biofuel: several of Diesel’s engines ran on peanut oil. I think that these theories are both highly unlikely, but we have no way of finding anything out now.

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