FreightWaves Classics: inventor of the first practical internal combustion engine largely unknown



Nicolas Carnot, a mechanical engineer in the French army, as well as a scientist and military physicist, is often described as “the father of thermodynamics”. At the age of 27, Carnot published a book, Réflexions sur la force motrice du feu (Paris, 1824). In his book, Carnot wrote the first “successful theory of maximum efficiency of heat engines”, as well as the idea of ​​the internal combustion engine. In doing so, he began the discipline of thermodynamics. Carnot’s writing attracted little attention during his lifetime; however, this was later the foundation for the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the definition of entropy, which were developed by Rudolf Clausius and Lord Kelvin.

Nicolas Carnot.  (Image:
Nicolas Carnot. (Image:

Based on technical questions, such as improving the performance of the steam engine, Carnot’s work is the basis of modern technologies such as the automobile or the jet engine. However,

Carnot never attempted to build an internal combustion engine.

The "Ideal Carnot Cycle." (Image:
The “ideal Carnot cycle”. (Image:

Lenoir and his engine

About 30 years after the publication of Carnot’s book, gaseous fuels were commercially available. This led a French inventor to develop the first practical and commercially successful internal combustion engine.

Today is the 121st anniversary of the death of Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir, the inventor of the internal combustion engine. Lenoir was born in Belgium and emigrated to France in the 1850s. He died near Paris at the age of 78.

Lenoir built a two-stroke, one-cylinder internal combustion engine in 1859. He used a converted steam engine with sliding valves to suck in a mixture of air and coal gases as well as to remove exhaust gases. of the motor. Lenoir’s engine used a battery to provide an electrical charge to ignite the gas after it was sucked into the cylinder.

Although only around 4% efficient in terms of fuel consumption, Lenoir’s engine was durable and mostly smooth. He filed a patent application with the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris; the organization awarded him a patent in 1860 for his “enlarged air engine by combustion of gas”.

By 1865, over 400 Lenoir engines were in use in France and over 1,000 in Great Britain. Its early engines were mainly used for low power activities such as running water pumps and printing presses. Although inefficient compared to later models, Lenoir’s engines were very durable – some were still running and in great condition after more than 20 years of continuous operation.

An illustration of Lenoir and the inventor's internal combustion engine.  (Image:
An illustration of Lenoir and the inventor’s internal combustion engine. (Image:

Lenoir’s automobile

After receiving his patent for the engine he created, Lenoir turned to powering a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. He built what is widely recognized as the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine in 1862. Adapting his engine to run on liquid fuel, the vehicle’s first outing was a six mile journey that lasted over two o’clock.

Lenoir improved his engine, and in 1863 Lenoir incorporated a different version of his internal combustion engine on a three-wheeled cart he built. Named the Hippomobile, it had a wagon body mounted on a tricycle. He made an 18 km round trip between Paris and Joinville-le-Pont in just under three hours.

However, its two-stroke engines were too small and inefficient to successfully propel a car at high speeds.

Lenoir at the controls of a three-wheeled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.  (Photo: curiokids)
Lenoir at the controls of a three-wheeled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. (Photo: curiokids)

Lenoir’s other inventions

Lenoir invented several other useful devices. Examples include the spark plug for automotive ignition systems. His invention is essentially the same as those used in cars today. He also invented white tin oxide without enamel in 1847, a revolutionary electroplating process in 1851, an electric brake for trains in 1855, an electric motor in 1856, a mechanical mixer in 1857, a controller for dynamos in 1859, an autografico telegraph in 1865, a motor boat powered by an internal combustion engine in 1886, and a method of tanning leather with ozone.

An illustration of a first wheeled vehicle powered by Lenoir's internal combustion engine.  (Illustration: The Illustrated World)
An illustration of a first wheeled vehicle powered by Lenoir’s internal combustion engine. (Illustration: The Illustrated World)

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