Rudolf Diesel (inset) disappeared while traveling on the SS Dresden. (Alfred Jensen/Wikimedia via Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service)

People come across his inventions every day: at the pumps, in grocery stores, and in nearly every train and cargo ship. But many may not realize that 110 years ago, Rudolf Diesel, the German-French man behind the Diesel engine, went missing without a trace.  

The disappearance of the inventor whose legacy transformed modern society was lost to history — until one Philadelphia author took it upon himself to revive and perhaps even solve the mystery.

Douglas Brunt, who was born in Philly and raised in the region, published “The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I” this past September. His first nonfiction book, it brings to light the story of an innovative creator whose creation changed the manner of transportation, manufacturing, and international relations.  

Readers are swept through an investigative story that shows how Diesel’s work would give both oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II the motive to want him dead. 

Diesel’s disappearance sent a shock through the world, with headlines splattered across newspapers’ front pages. To put the social and global implications in context, Brunt compares the occurrence to Elon Musk going missing in the present day.

Yet a man with such impact not only vanished from the sea, but also been diminished in history, Brunt suggested. Few people today know of the man behind the engine, he noted: “Diesel” is usually lowercase, for example, when by right it should be capitalized. 

Brunt suggests Diesel’s legacy was purposely buried by those who wanted him gone. ”He has sort of been whitewashed from history in a way that was deliberate,” the author told Billy Penn.

In 1913, the year of Diesel’s disappearance, Brunt recounts, the Diesel engine was considered a gold mine that nearly every great power wanted for the war to come. It offered efficiency, being relatively compact, yet producing much more horsepower and requiring less labor than traditional oil-burning engines — allowing militaries to wield larger ships and submarines.

Brunt connects the disappearance of Diesel to the complex economic and political web that his engine found itself trapped in. 

For countries on the brink of war, the Diesel engine symbolized power. For big oil, the Diesel engine was a competitor. 

(Simon & Schuster, 2023)

Through nearly six years of investigation and research into Diesel’s suspicious disappearance and death, Brunt narrows the evidence in this century-old mystery to identify one suspect with the means and motive to make it happen. 

While Brunt’s book is presented in the form of a murder mystery, it reminds us that history is often hidden in our everyday lives waiting to be discovered. 

Rudolf Diesel stood among some of the most renowned creators of the 20th century, and the story includes tethered tales about historical figures like Thomas Edison, Alfred Nobel (of the Nobel Prize), Winston Churchill, Adolphus Bush, and Chester Nimitz.  

Today, the Diesel engine continues to fuel our economies. Diesel engines power nearly every truck, train, and boat, transporting food and goods from across the world to our plates at home. 

As Brunt puts it, if it weren’t for Diesel’s invention, “the world would not look anything like it does today.”

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Amanda Smith is a Haitian-American Philadelphian born and raised in Northeast Philly. She graduated from Temple University with a degree in media studies and production and political science and is working...