The Internal Combustion Engine

Étienne Lenoir was born in 1822 in Luxembourg. He left his hometown when he was 16 and walked to Paris. He was interested in a technical career, but his family had no resources to fund his education. As a result, he was forced to take a job as a waiter in a restaurant when he arrived in Paris. He spent his free time reading about technology and experimenting in the basement of the hostel where he lived.

Étienne’s technical career began when he got a job with a company doing enameling. Étienne discovered a way of producing white enamel and was awarded his first patent. Subsequently, he became interested in electricity. This led to a number of patents which he then sold to maintain a living.

Lenoir became convinced that steam engines needed to be replaced by something more efficient and practical, especially for land transportation. Lenoir’s idea was an internal combustion engine using a mixture of coal gas and air. While his idea was successful, it took a number of adaptations to make it practical.

Lenoir then decided to produce automobiles using his engines as a power source. The top speed was close to 2 miles per hour. While slower than the speed of human walking, Étienne was able to sell a number of automobiles.

Étienne sold the patent for his engine and continued to work on other patents. The work he started on the internal combustion engine was the catalyst for many other developments. Étienne became prosperous through his inventions and passed away at the age of 78.

Hidden heroes are often the catalysts that spur subsequent developments. While the Lenoir engine was not the first patent on an internal combustion engine, it was the first one to be commercialized. The flaws in his engine then became the basis for additional developments. When we think of the early days of automobiles, we think of more recognizable names such as Henry Ford, not of Étienne Lenoir. Most people would also think of automobiles as being a 20th Century innovation, not realizing that the internal combustion engine and automobiles were first introduced in the 1860s.

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“Innovation is by its very nature disruptive. If you want to be understood at all times, then don’t do anything new.”  – Jeff Bezos (Founder of Amazon)

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