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

Review

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

THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF RUDOLF DIESEL is being promoted as an investigation into the disappearance of genius inventor Rudolf Diesel during a channel crossing from Belgium to England. New York Times bestselling author and historian Douglas Brunt offers readers not just that, but also a riveting appraisal of power --- both mechanical and societal --- at the start of the 20th century.

Against the backdrop of these technological, economic, social and political developments, Brunt chronicles the life and work of Diesel up to his disappearance in September 1913. “No inventor was more disruptive to the established order than Rudolf Diesel,” he writes of the man who gave his name to the remarkable invention of the internal combustion engine.

"[R]eaders are treated to a rich saga filled with physics, engineering and mechanics, as well as a social history of Europe and America at the turn of the century."

Because of Diesel’s accomplishments and Brunt’s interest in history and politics, not to mention machines, readers are treated to a rich saga filled with physics, engineering and mechanics, as well as a social history of Europe and America at the turn of the century. Engines --- particularly diesel engines --- played such a critical role in the development of maritime commerce, the rise of alternative fuels, the modernization of factories and modern warfare, all of which is laid out here in absorbing detail. What might have been a dry subject comes alive, as Brunt explains how Diesel first invented his engine and then befriended many of the men who licensed the rights to produce versions of his prototypes.

Among Diesel’s friends were Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch fame, Emanuel Nobel of the famous Swedish Nobel brothers, and Thomas Edison (though perhaps they were more mutually respectful). But it is Winston Churchill who became one of his biggest admirers; for personal and political reasons, Diesel felt similarly. His brief time in London after a difficult childhood in Germany and then Paris allowed him to converse fluently in three languages, and his fascination with different national traits --- he was particularly admiring of Americans and the English --- made him a well-informed and often prescient observer. He saw what was happening in Germany long before the country started its aggressions, and the implications alarmed him.

Brunt’s theory about Diesel’s disappearance rests on this extensive backstory, though it lacks definitive proof, as do all the theories that have emerged. But even his exploration of what may have happened, and what various theories were promulgated by whom, is enlightening. Was it the British who wanted him out of the way, or his nemesis, John D. Rockefeller? Was it an accident or suicide, the prevailing theory? Each option presents an opportunity to look further into Diesel’s remarkable impact on world events.

Readers will see the seeds of many modern-day issues discussed in these pages and will learn much about how the tumultuous beginnings of the 20th century set the course that we’re on today.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on September 21, 2023

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

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2023
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982169907
  • ISBN-13: 9781982169909