The spark-ignition engine was invented by Nikolaus August Otto who had a first machine built along the lines of his ideas in 1861. It became the “starting point for the four-stroke gas engine,” the inventor reflected in retrospect, and he initially envisaged its use as a stationary engine to compete against the steam engine. An experimental four-cylinder engine working according to the four-stroke principle followed in 1862. This engine operated on gas, and every operating cycle of the engine consisted of the following steps: mixture intake, compression, ignition, and discharge of the exhaust gas. This four-stroke engine appears particularly visionary today, since, even then, many of its engineering details were similar to those of later engines.
Together with Eugen Langen, a mechanical engineer from Cologne, Otto founded the mechanical engineering company N. A. Otto & Cie. In 1866, finally, he was granted the coveted Prussian patent on his machine. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867, Otto’s engine was favored over other gas engines. After measuring the gas consumption, the jury even awarded the Grand Prix to the German engine because Otto’s engine required less than half the gas of other engines. This international approval was the basis for production on a larger scale, and brought the company economic stability.
In 1872, Gottlieb Daimler was appointed member of the directorate of Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz AG, a company which had emerged from N. A. Otto & Cie. Daimler also brought the design engineer Wilhelm Maybach with him to Otto. In 1875, Maybach was already attempting to convert the atmospheric engine to gasoline operation.
The internal combustion engine was improved continuously. In 1877, Otto was granted a patent on his four-stroke machine (DRP 532). The inventor applied the principle to multi-cylinder engines to achieve higher output.
The first vehicle to be fitted with the novel propulsion system was a rail car in 1880. However, the stationary engine used was too heavy, and the vehicle’s overall concept was far from being matured. Otto’s patent was cancelled in 1886. This permitted other companies to intensify their activities in the production of four-stroke and two-stroke engines. As a consequence, the engine-building industry grew rapidly within a short period of time.
Otto’s pioneering technological achievements should in no way be underestimated. With his engine, he paved the way for developments such as the Daimler and Benz automobiles, and these two automotive pioneers themselves openly built on Nikolaus Otto’s work, as they were convinced of the technological merits. In doing so, from the beginning, Benz focused on the efficient integration of the drive system into a road vehicle, while Daimler worked primarily on a universal engine with which he sought to power as many different means of transport as possible. The idea of mobility by means of the four-stroke gasoline engine was realized by both pioneers, although their solutions differed in their details.
Many years later, in 1996, Nikolaus August Otto and Wilhelm Maybach were honored for their achievements in engineering and automotive technology: the two pioneers were inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.