The Mysterious Disappearance of Diesel

Diesel's German Patent on the diesel engine, February, 28, 1892

Diesel's German Patent on the diesel engine, February, 28, 1892

The fourth week of February is somewhat “lucky” for Rudolf Diesel, the man who’s responsible for a fuel, an engine, and a combustion process bearing his name. And it was this week in history, on February 28, 1892 that Rudolf Diesel received the patent for his groundbreaking compression-ignition engine in Germany.

But, as lucky as this week may be this month, maybe it is a little ironic, too, that same week in September happens to be a most terrible one for dear Mister Diesel.

You see, on September 29, 1913, Rudolf Diesel disappeared – presumably into the English Channel – never to be seen again.

Not alive, at least.

It’s a story that’s as unfortunate as it is mysterious…

Diesel, The Dresden, The Drowning… Oh My!

It was September 29, 1913. In the process of finalizing plans to open a factory in England to manufacture his new engine, Diesel boarded the post ship Dresden for what should have been a completely routine overnight journey.

And, as far as anyone could tell, the night of the 29th was just that. He boarded, dined, milled about for a bit, and retired at around 10pm to his room. When his requested 6:15 am wakeup call rolled around the following morning, he was nowhere to be found.

If evidence at the scene is worth anything, he apparently didn’t even have a chance to get to bed. His nightshirt and watch were neatly laid out by the bed. And then, and this is where it really starts to get weird, his hat and overcoat were discovered neatly stowed under the railing on the ship’s afterdeck with the owner nowhere in sight.

(I don’t know about you, but when I go for a walk on a ship’s deck after dark, in the fall, ON THE DAMP WINDY ENGLISH CHANNEL, I totally leave my overcoat folded up under a railing like I don’t need it. But, I digress.)


Most everyone was prepared for the worst of outcomes, and closure finally came a week and a half later when the crew of a Dutch fishing ship pulled a body from the North Sea. As was customary at the time, they removed his personal effects and left the body for the sea to carry off. Those effects – a pocket knife, wallet, ID, a pill container and an eyeglass case – were identified as belonging to Rudolf on October 13, 1913, by Rudolf’s son, Eugen.

Here’s the Body, Now, Where’s the Motive?

Of course, calling it closure is really only half accurate – perhaps everyone could now know for somewhat certain that Rudolf Diesel was, indeed, dead. But then the question remains: How? And if not how, why?!

Certainly the absence of a body may leave some to wonder if we was really dead at all, and then there’s the whole thing about that bag he gave his Wife just before he left.

You know, the one he told her for a week and when she did it was full of cash?

Oh, you didn’t know that?

I told you this was weird.

So, apparently, dear Rudolph left his wife Martha with a bag just before his journey. He told her not to open it for a week. When she did, she discovered 200,000 German Marks and a number of papers indicating their bank accounts had been emptied.

That whole “folded up overcoat on the afterdeck” thing is looking really suspicious now, isn’t it?

Now, with what little evidence exists, rumors & theories flourish. None is ever proven to be true.

But then, none is ever proven to be wrong, either.

Here are the most popular theories:

  • Diesel killed himself – if the bank statements, and some reports of increasing headaches and continuous stress have anything to say, then suicide is most likely explanation. Then again, Diesel’s family would have told you he was quite happy to share his invention and equally fond of his work, so who knows? Either way, this is the official ruling on “what happened” to our dear Diesel.
  • It was totally an accident – one theory indicates Diesel was simply a victim of his own insomnia and just fell over the ship’s lower-than-usual deck rails to a sad, untimely end.
  • Secret agents killed diesel – with World War looming, some suspect Diesel was killed by the German government to avoid him sharing his ideas with the world.
  • Petroleum industry heads had Diesel killed – other theories suppose petroleum industry leaders hired a hit man to kill Diesel, supposedly because the efficiency of the engine & the fuel would have jeopardized the industry.
  • A competitor killed Diesel – to steal his invention, apparently. Although, at the time he already held numerous patents, and this seems to be one of the least likely scenarios.
  • Diesel didn’t really die – no body, no proof, right? Again, highly unlikely. Besides, he was broke. It’s not like he dropped off the map the owner of some secret fortune that would have D.B. Cooper blushing.

No matter which theory you believe, the fact remains that Diesel, as an inventor, was years ahead of his time. I can only wonder what else he might have accomplished if he hadn’t died so suddenly.