Two engineering autobiographies

Posted on September 22nd, 2015 in automotive history,Engine Management,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

I have recently been reading some engineering autobiographies relating to the early years of piston and jet engine development.

The first, The Ricardo Story: the Autobiography of Sir Harry Ricardo, Pioneer of Engine Research, is the story of the early years of life of a man who, working outside of the major automotive and aircraft engine manufacturers, made a huge contribution to the development of piston engines.

The autobiography, which covers the period between about 1900 and 1930, is especially interesting in the technical area of fuel octane and detonation. In fact, Harry Ricardo invented the concept of fuel octane rating – the resistance that a fuel has to detonation. In those days, what made a fuel effective was not much understood – to the degree that Shell was burning off, as waste, high octane fuels! Why? Because the measured specific gravity of these fuels didn’t match what was then regarded as the requirement for internal combustion engines…

Ricardo was able to physically observe detonation occurring, using windows into the combustion chamber and a moving shutter. He was the first to realise the positive implications of high-swirl combustion chambers, the first to use water injection (unfortunately not much covered in the book), and the first to build an experimental variable compression engine.

The book is written in a flowing, readable style and – for those interested in the technical aspects of his career – doesn’t get bogged-down in personal life meanderings. It’s probably best a book for those who already know something about those early days of motoring (and aircraft – the engine technology was not much different) and want to see more into a world when so much was unknown.

Another book that I have been reading is Engine Revolutions: the Autobiography of Max Bentele. As I write this, I am part way through the book – and what a fascinating treatise it is.

Bentele, a German, started his working career in the late 1930s on turbochargers. Turbos? Yes, the world’s first. He then went on to German jet engines – along with the UK’s Frank Whittle designs, again the world’s first – before the world of German engineers came crashing down in 1945 with the end of WWII.

He then migrated to the UK and then the US, working in the latter country on – among other engines – the Wankel rotary engine. It’s now not so much remembered, but US industry was very serious about the rotary engine and did much development on this design.

As I say, I am currently only part way through this book – but it is already enthralling. The non-English native language of Bentele shows a little in his prose; at times it is a bit stilted and the text more uneasily mixes the personal and professional. On the plus side, the technical detail is very high and these aspects are also well explained.

Harry Ricardo was born in 1885 and died in 1974, while Max Bentele was born in 1909 and died in 2006. Ricardo’s name lives on in the engineering consulting company that he began, but Bentele’s name is much less well known.

Two fascinating books.

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