Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Hitting the Road: The 3 Men Behind Combustion Engines

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

There are three fathers of invention when it comes to nearly every car on the road today: Otto, Diesel, and Atkinson. They all had one thing in common—a drive to improve the efficiency of the engines available in the late 1800s. Each man succeeded, though Atkinson’s success with his engine innovation wouldn’t be put into use for many, many, many years (more than a century, in fact).

1. Nikolaus Otto

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Nearly everyone has heard of a diesel engine, but nearly everyone actually has an Otto-cycle engine. Call it a four-banger, a five-point-oh, a V8, or any other gearhead term—they’re all internal combustion Otto engines.

Otto was a high-school dropout who worked in a grocery store, as an office drone, and as a traveling salesman in Germany in the mid-1800s. Lucky for us, he also had a mechanical bent. At the time, engines used external combustion—the fuel source fired up outside the engine itself. That meant the engines were stationary; they could only power machinery in factories, not fit under a hood and go tootling around the German countryside.

Having been a traveling salesman, Otto wanted a way to travel his route more quickly. So he came up with a way to introduce the gasoline into the cylinder itself, and thus was born the first two-stroke internal combustion engine in 1864. He used this first stroke of genius to found Otto & Cie, now the world’s oldest manufacturer of internal combustion engines (it’s changed names a few times over the years; it’s now Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz). He used his second stroke of genius to hire a couple of young engineering upstarts whose names might sound familiar: Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

The ensuing four-stroke engine was patented in 1877, though the patent was later disputed and revoked. In any case, the “Silent Otto” engine, as it was known, made 3 hp at 180 rpm. Hold onto your bonnet, Mildred! That is not powerful.

2. Rudolf Diesel

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Diesel was born in France in 1858, but he spent much of his young life in Germany, where the engineering field was hotter than bratwurst. He himself became a thermal engineer, and he held several patents related to refrigeration. But it was the other end of the thermal scale that would make Diesel famous.

He saw what Otto was doing and thought he could make the process of burning fuel to create usable power more efficient. His solution was to put air under such high pressure that it got hot. Really hot. Spontaneous-combustion hot. Then, when fuel of any kind was introduced—even peanut oil—it would ignite without needing a spark.

This went over like gangbusters when he filed the patent in 1894. By 1898, Diesel was a millionaire. But in 1913, Diesel’s body was found floating in the North Sea.  He had been on his way to England from Belgium to open a new engine factory and talk to the British Navy about using his engine in their submarines. Conspiracy theories flew: Was he murdered by Big Oil for his engine’s efficiency? Or by Big Coal, whose products powered ships and factories? Or by Germans afraid he was selling out to the Brits? Or did he leap from the deck in a fit of depression, as he was nearly broke at the time?

Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But in the meantime, we can thank his pioneering use of peanut oil for our ability to dump biodiesel, French fry grease, and any manner of alternative fuels into modern diesel engines without harm.

3. James Atkinson

Let’s clear up a point of inventor-related confusion right now: this is not the same guy who built the mousetrap with the snapping wire. That’s another English inventor named James Atkinson. This is the guy who looked at what Otto and Diesel were doing and thought, “I can make that more efficient.”

Atkinson’s stroke of genius was singular and irregular. Singular because in the engine he created in 1882, all four strokes (intake, compression, ignition, exhaust) were completed in one turn of the crankshaft. Irregular because he figured out how use uneven strokes to shorten the intake stroke—which means less fuel is used—and lengthen the power stroke to maximize the effect of that fuel. It was a very efficient engine, and also very unwieldy, with its complicated linkages. It didn’t catch on at all in the early days of automotive history. Steam engines made more sense to people than this contraption.

But then, at the turn of the next century, gasoline-electric hybrids hit the scene. They had lots of power up front, thanks to their electric motors, but it petered out pretty quickly. Atkinson engines were exactly the opposite: The shorter intake stroke meant less fuel was being used, but it also meant that no matter how long that power stroke was after ignition, it wasn’t going to be as powerful as the one in an Otto engine.

It turned out that Atkinson-cycle engines and electric motors went together like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s cup. They combined to showcase their best sides and accommodate each other’s flaws. Of course, now the uneven strokes are achieved using variable valve timing and other electronic tricks, but the idea is the same as Atkinson’s original, even after a century of languishing, unloved, on the patent office shelves.

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Flurry Road: 5 Tips for Safe Driving on Winter Roads

For drivers in the Upper Midwest, traveling during the winter can range from slightly unsettling to deadly. Between 2011 and 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Auto Insurance Center, an average of 800 fatalities occurred annually as a result of weather-related accidents. Icy roads, poor visibility, and other factors can make cold-weather commuting a dicey proposition.

While we can’t control the weather (yet), we can increase our odds of navigating slush-filled roadways successfully. Mental Floss spoke with American Automobile Association (AAA) driving education expert William Van Tassel, Ph.D., for some key tips on how to get your winter driving in gear.


Before you even start your car up for a trip through inclement weather, Van Tassel recommends you pack a worst-case scenario trunk full of supplies. “In case of emergency, you want things on board like water, a blanket, a flashlight, gloves, and kitty litter,” he says. (That last one is for traction in case you get stuck in a snowbank.) You should also have road flares, a shovel, an ice scraper, and a fully-charged cell phone to call for assistance if needed.


Posted speed limit signs assume you’re driving on clear and clean roadways. If snow or ice has accumulated, you need to adjust your speed accordingly. “In slick conditions, tires lose a lot of traction,” Van Tassel says. “You should be cutting your speed down by half or more.” Unfortunately, a lot of people learn this the hard way. “After a snowstorm, we’ll see more crashes on day one than days two or three.”

Van Tassel also cautions to avoid becoming overconfident on snow tires. While they provide better traction in bad weather, it’s not license to speed up.


You should be doing this regardless, but bad weather makes it even more crucial. Keep your vehicle at a safe distance from cars behind, in front, and off to the sides, as well as away from pedestrians or cyclists. If you need to brake suddenly, you need time—and space—to avoid a collision. “You really want more space in front,” Van Tassel says. Try to stay between seven and 10 seconds behind the vehicle ahead. That means seeing a landmark and then counting down until you pass the same marker. If you’re only a few seconds behind, you’re too close.


“That was an old rule of thumb,” Van Tassel says. “The problem is, by the time I remember to steer into a skid, I’m already in a ditch.” If you feel your vehicle sliding, it’s better to steer in the direction you want to go. “You’ll drive where you look, so don’t look at a telephone pole.”

To help maintain control of the car, you want to focus on doing one thing at a time. “If you’re going through a turn, brake, finish braking, then turn. Don’t brake and turn at the same time.”


Yep, even in broad daylight. Bad weather limits visibility, and headlights allow both you and your fellow drivers to orient a vehicle. “You’re twice as visible to other drivers that way,” Van Tassel says. “When people can see you, they can avoid you.”

Van Tassel also recommends that drivers avoid relying on fancy car technology to keep them safe. While blind spot monitoring and lane changing sensors are useful, they’re not there so you can zone out. “The tech is there to back you up if you need it. Drive the car, but don’t rely on those things,” he says.

Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]


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