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From Rocket Sparks to Revving Engines: Tracing the History of the Internal Combustion Engine

From roaring motorcycles to sleek supercars, the internal combustion engine has powered our transportation revolution for centuries. But have you ever wondered how this marvel of engineering came to be?

Our journey starts not with engines, but with fireworks - China saw the first rocket engines in the 10th-13th centuries! Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and inventors like John Barber and Thomas Mead were tinkering with gas turbines and engines, each step laying the groundwork for future innovations.

Three-horsepower internal-combustion engine fueled by coal gas and air, illustration, 1896
Three-horsepower internal-combustion engine fueled by coal gas and air, illustration, 1896

Where the History of the Internal Combustion Engine Begins:

The 19th century witnessed a flurry of activity, culminating in the engines we know today. Key figures emerged, shaping the industry:

  • Gottlieb Daimler: Often considered the "father of the modern gasoline engine," Daimler's 1885 invention incorporated gasoline injection, a significant advancement over earlier carburettor-based systems. This paved the way for more efficient and powerful engines.

  • Karl Benz: The visionary behind the world's first practical automobile patented in 1886, Benz focused on creating a functional and reliable vehicle, laying the foundation for the widespread adoption of cars.

  • Nicolaus Otto: Credited with inventing the four-stroke engine in 1876 (the Otto cycle), a design still used in most gasoline engines today. This efficient and versatile design revolutionized the industry.

These pioneers, along with others like Wilhelm Maybach (Daimler's collaborator) and Eugenio Barsanti & Felice Matteucci (creators of the first "true" internal combustion engine), laid the groundwork for the automobile revolution.

Sleeve Engine

Charles Knight's innovation in engine design involved the development of a double sliding sleeve principle. creating the sleeve engine. This design featured two cast-iron sleeves per cylinder, with one sliding inside the other, housing the piston. The sleeves were controlled by small connecting rods driven by an eccentric shaft, with ports cut out at their upper ends. The cylinder head resembled a fixed, inverted piston with rings projecting down inside the inner sleeve, and it was detachable for each cylinder. This design was remarkably quiet and required minimal maintenance, with no need for adjustment, shims, or springs. These new innovations leads to the 1913 STEARNS - KNIGHT SK6 being the fastest gasoline powered production automobile in 1913.

Air Cooled Engine

In 1902, Franklin Automobile Company emerged when Franklin joined forces with engineer John Wilkinson, who had been working on an air-cooled engine. With Franklin taking over the project, the company produced its first car. The innovative air-cooled engines, eliminating water-cooling issues, appealed particularly to professionals like physicians who required dependable transportation in winter conditions. The 1917 FRANKLIN 9A featured an aerodynamic aluminum body, ash frame, and air cooled inline 6 cylinder engine.

Two Stroke four-cylinder engine

The 1910 Elmore Model 36 Elmore featured a more complex two-stroke engine that used stepped pistons and a tubular rotary valve to provide a compression phase, getting the air-fuel mixture out of the crankcase and providing up to 70 hp.

Wankel Engine

1929: Felix Wankel patents the ingenious rotary engine concept, offering a different approach to generating power. Although commercially successful for some (like Mazda's RX series), its inherent challenges limited its broader adoption.

1928 ALVIS FD 12-75
1928 ALVIS FD 12-75


Starting with early experiments in the late 19th century to enhance the performance of internal combustion engines. Pioneers like Daimler and Maybach developed supercharged engines for racing cars around the turn of the 20th century. During World War I, superchargers became crucial in aviation for boosting engine performance at high altitudes. In the interwar period, they found their way into automotive applications, with companies like Mercedes-Benz and Bentley producing road cars with supercharged engines. Notably, the 1928 Alvis FD 12-75 introduced front-wheel-drive innovation alongside a supercharged engine, showcasing advancements in automotive engineering. Post-World War II, supercharging technology continued to advance alongside turbocharging, remaining relevant in high-performance vehicles and racing cars.

A Continuing Evolution:

While the basic engine design evolved, new ideas continued to emerge:

  • 1955: Fuel injection replaces carburetors, leading to smoother operation, better efficiency, and more power. This technology, derived from wartime aircraft, became ubiquitous in modern cars.

  • 1962: Turbocharging enters the scene, boosting power and performance, initially in high-performance cars but eventually becoming widespread for its efficiency benefits.

The 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa stands as a prime example of early turbocharged innovation. While the first production car with a turbocharger dates back to 1962, the Corvair Corsa offered a unique application. This sleek two-door coupe featured a turbocharged version of its air-cooled flat-six engine, generating a thrilling 180 horsepower - a significant jump from the base 140 horsepower version. 

The future of the internal combustion engine is uncertain, but its journey has been nothing short of remarkable. From humble beginnings to powering our modern world, it has transformed transportation and shaped our lives in countless ways. As we head towards a more sustainable future, the internal combustion engine's story continues to unfold, leaving us curious about what innovations lie ahead.


​​The Evolution of the Combustion Engine​​

Biography of Automobile Inventor Gottlieb Daimler

America’s Popular Two-Stroke Car: The 1900-12 Elmore


Sleeve Valve Engines – ‘Silent Knight’


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