Friday, 2 October 2015

02/10/15 - Venn Diesel

A lot of people spend their lives entirely preoccupied with attempting to position themselves in a favourable spot on the fame/riches/happiness Venn diagram. It’s a rare and special thing to find yourself in that hallowed, curvaceous triangle in the centre. Shifting from the outer edges into the middle, permeating those unyielding membranes, requires effort that can consume lives. You don’t get awarded it for free, despite what X Factor contestants may believe. It comes from dedicated endeavour, a sprinkle of chutzpah and a whole lot of talent. To be rich, famous and happy, if that’s your thing, is something that needs to be earned.
So how’s your life going? Is it as interesting as you thought it would be? Which of the circles do you find yourself in? Does it cross over with any of the other circles? Do you even care?

It’s easy to bang on about trying hard and earning your wings, but it doesn’t work out perfectly for everyone. (Of course it doesn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t be special, it’d just be the norm.) Take, for example, the life of Rudolf Diesel. You all know his name. The fuel and the engine that leap to mind are the correct answer – he is that Diesel. And his story is really quite unfortunate.

Born in Paris in 1858, his Bavarian immigrant parents encouraged in him an enthusiasm for engineering, for taking things apart just to see how they worked. From his teens it was his life’s ambition to be a great engineer, with the ultimate goal of developing an engine that would revolutionise industry at all levels; one that would be efficient and economical, adaptable and clean, and chase away the scourge of filthy steam-engines that were caking the world’s industrial centres with choking soot.

Growing up in Paris was tough for a family of Bavarian extraction; Diesel’s father, a leather goods manufacturer, had relocated the family there in the hope of an economic recovery that never came. The Franco-Prussian war saw them expelled from the country - Bavaria being a Prussian ally - and the family fled for London. They were working-class refugees, and found no opportunities. They quickly fell into poverty. In an effort to secure a better future for their offspring, Rudolf’s parents packed him off to a relative in Bavaria.
Dispossessed and disillusioned, Diesel threw himself into his studies and proved to be a fiercely intelligent young man, gaining a scholarship to an engineering institution and graduating with honours – despite battling typhoid along the way.

Entering the burgeoning refrigeration industry, he soon became respected as a skilled and astute authority in the discipline. But he still nurtured his dream of creating that revolutionary, world-changing engine, and set about developing prototypes to crack the problem and ultimately make the world a better place. This didn’t go brilliantly to begin with. An early experiment with an adapted steam engine fuelled by ammonia vapour exploded and nearly killed him, sending him limping and wheezing back to the drawing board, his eyesight irreparably damaged. He refocused his efforts on the concept of compression ignition. His first effort in this field also exploded and nearly killed him. An intrepid fellow, he analysed the nature of the explosion, realised he was working along the right lines, and persevered with compression ignition until he made it work. It took years of arduous physical and mental strain and left him a broken man, but eventually, by 1894, the Diesel engine was a real, workable thing. It entered full production in 1898. The dream of a now frail and damaged man was finally coming true.

So going back to our Venn diagram, it seems that Diesel had cause to be happy at last. He was famous, too – his invention was genuinely good, just as he always knew it would be. And the riches? Yes, they were starting to roll in.
…but numerous other innovators were experimenting with compression ignition at this time, and Rudolf found himself plagued by nuisance lawsuits, all of them expensive to battle. He’d never really been that financially astute either, and lost vast swathes of his earnings to iffy investment schemes. His family helped to extravagantly fritter away what was left on luxuries and trinkets.
Furthermore, he’d sold the rights to control manufacture with the initial designs, so the engines being built and sold were nowhere near his own high standards. Substandard machinery was going out in his name, and his reputation and public image quickly soured. By 1912 he was desolate, derided and penniless.

The stress of his crushed and faded dreams brought on gout, migraines and chest pains, and he became irretrievably, clinically depressed. On September 29th 1913, travelling on a cross-Channel ferry to attend the groundbreaking of an English factory, he threw himself over the ship’s railings to his death. He left no suicide note, merely bequeathing to his wife a small bag containing the few pennies he could scrape together, and a sheaf of bank statements indicating that all of their accounts were empty.

Diesel is more than just a word. Think about that the next time you’re at the pumps.
Maybe it’s not worth aspiring to more than one circle. 

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