Lifestyle Reader's Edge the May 2024 issue

A Famous Death That Wasn’t?

A review of The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I
By Scott Naugle Posted on April 30, 2024

“There, near the mouth of the Scheldt River along the eastern edge of the English Channel, in the rippling black, the men on the small vessel realized what they’d seen. It was a body.” It is Oct. 11, 1913. After days of worldwide speculation and bold front-page headlines over his disappearance, the mystery of Rudolf Diesel’s whereabouts has been presumably solved. The famous inventor and businessperson, missing for almost two weeks from an overnight crossing of the English Channel while traveling from Belgium to London, is dead.

The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I

By Douglas Brunt

Atria Books/
Simon & Schuster

$28.99

Many were quick to judge Diesel’s death a suicide or foul play, possibly instigated by the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, or the American John D. Rockefeller. In his meticulously researched and engrossingly written biography, Douglas Brunt concludes that neither theory was correct. He presents a solid case that Diesel’s death was faked for a cause that may have changed the course of modern history.

The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel can be read as a murder mystery, a primer on 19th and 20th century European history, a synopsis on the brittle politics leading to World War I, a rags-to-riches story, a love story, or a case study of how a brilliant man invented a power source that changed the world. It is all of these, bound together in a page-turning narrative told with a storyteller’s nuance and flair by Brunt, a businessperson, novelist, and historian.

From an early age, writes Brunt, his family realizes Rudolf is unique: “He would shrink away from boisterous play—games of tag or races in the street—and withdraw in solitude to a corner of their home where he would disassemble and analyze toys made by his father or draw sketches of mechanical devices.” Offers of employment come quickly after his graduation from the Royal Bavarian Polytechnic of Munich as a mathematician and engineer.

After an intense and exhausting few years, Diesel in 1897 completes his first prototype of a more efficient internal combustion engine with the “potential to scale the massive tasks that only steam power could address,” as well as the advantages of “sparkless ignition, the ability to use stable and inexpensive liquid fuels, and near-invisible exhaust,” Brunt writes. He attracts the attention of oil barons like Rockefeller, whose dynasties would collapse with the proliferation of an engine that did not need fossil fuels like gasoline, along with men who had military designs on conquering more territory with war boats that did not signal their impending arrival with large plumes of black smoke. “His scientific peers were Edison, Tesla, Bell, Marconi, Ford, Einstein, the Wright Brothers,” according to Brunt, “names that would achieve cultural immortality.” 

World political tensions soon are at a fever pitch among France, Russia, Germany, and Great Britain. The United States of America is a rising superpower.

All these governments realize that their vast fleets of steam-powered fighting ships are outdated and cumbersome. Great Britain’s lauded Royal Navy is susceptible to being overtaken by Germany and Russia, as all have equal access to Diesel’s engine. The technology is central to military plans to defend peaceful countries and critical for tyrants who plan to forcibly invade other territories.

Business titans, dictators, and statesmen want either privileged access to Diesel’s engine technology or to eliminate the threats he poses to their business empires. A few have alleged histories of taking unusual, and sometimes violent, measures to protect their wealth or expansion plans.

Those tensions—in so far as they involve Diesel—come to a head in fall 1913, less than a year before World War I will begin. The body recovered near the English Channel is badly decomposed, as “steamship sailors pulled the rotted but ‘finely dressed’ body alongside their craft then plucked an enameled pillbox, coin purse, eyeglasses case, and penknife from its pockets.” The corpse is released back into the water. Eugen Diesel, Rudolf’s son, later confirms the items belonged to his father.

What had happened and why? Brunt makes a compelling argument for a story behind the accepted version of history. I am not a spoiler, so I will say only that this book convinced me that the floating corpse was not Rudolf Diesel. 

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