Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine

Étienne Lenoir built a double-acting, spark-ignition engine that ran on coal gas and became the first truly effective internal combustion engine. Its reliable operation led to several commercial applications, and it demonstrated the potential of the internal combustion engine, spawning all the improvements made by later inventors.

Summary of Event

Although often seen as the steam engine’s Steam engines;and internal combustion engines[internal combustion engines] successor, the internal combustion engine actually antedates in conception the many eighteenth and nineteenth century devices powered by steam. Motivated by a desire to use atmospheric pressure to perform burdensome tasks, Christiaan Huygens in the seventeenth century conceived of a machine in which the combustion of gunpowder in a cylinder would raise a piston. When the hot gases were cooled, the pressure of the atmosphere would force the piston down. Repetitions of this cycle would mean that the engine might work to power a pump. Lenoir, Étienne
Internal combustion engines
Automobiles;and internal combustion engines[Internal combustion engines]
[kw]Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine (1860)
[kw]Patents the Internal Combustion Engine, Lenoir (1860)
[kw]Internal Combustion Engine, Lenoir Patents the (1860)
[kw]Engine, Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion (1860)
Lenoir, Étienne
Internal combustion engines
Automobiles;and internal combustion engines[Internal combustion engines]
[g]France;1860: Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine[3360]
[c]Inventions;1860: Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine[3360]
[c]Science and technology;1860: Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine[3360]
[c]Transportation;1860: Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine[3360]
Otto, Nikolaus August
Daimler, Gottlieb
Huygens, Christiaan

During the eighteenth century, other inventors suggested using coal gas, wood gas, or other volatile hydrocarbons as fuel, but practicable engines emerged only when inventors substituted the expansive force of steam in place of burning gunpowder. Nevertheless, the dream of an internal combustion engine did not die, and throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, inventors continued to design and experiment with devices in which fuel was burned within an engine (in contrast to steam engines, whose fuel was burned in a separate boiler).

In Switzerland during the first decade of the nineteenth century, François Isaac de Rivaz Rivaz, François Isaac de experimented with the electrical ignition of hydrogen and oxygen gases in a cylinder to raise a piston, and he was even able to use this device to move a four-wheeled platform over short distances. During the 1820’s, Samuel Brown Brown, Samuel , an English engineer, adapted a Newcomen steam engine to burn coal gas, and, in a trial before the British Admiralty on the Thames River, he used his crude engine to power a boat with a bow-mounted propeller. During the next two decades, other European and American inventors designed and sometimes built engines that used the gases generated from coal, wood, or turpentine as fuel, but these engines had serious flaws and never became commercially practical.

The person who elevated the internal combustion engine from the provisional to the practical was Étienne Lenoir. Although largely self-taught, he had become a successful inventor by the time he focused on engines. For example, in the 1840’s he developed a method of enameling clock faces, and in 1855 he invented an electric brake for railroad trains. During the late 1850’s, he turned his attention to devices that burned fuel inside a cylinder containing a piston. He believed that, if explosive Explosives;coal gas combustions of illuminating gas and air could be properly controlled, the device would have advantages over those that used such intermediate working gases as steam. Although nothing startlingly new characterized the engines that Lenoir eventually produced, he was able to overcome many difficulties that had foiled his predecessors to make not just a prototype but a marketable engine.

Lenoir’s basic idea was to modify a steam engine by replacing steam with illuminating gas. His engine contained a horizontal cylinder with a piston. The piston had a connecting rod linking it to a crankshaft with a flywheel. Lenoir’s engines were double-acting through a two-stroke cycle. When the piston was halfway in the cylinder, a slide valve admitted a mixture of gas and air and then closed. A spark provided by a storage battery Batteries, electrical and an induction coil ignited the gas-air mixture, forcing the piston to the right end of the cylinder. In the return stroke of the piston, another slide valve opened to charge the opposite side of the piston with gas and air. Ignition of these gases by another spark plug forced the piston to the left while forcing the gases on the other side of the piston through an opened slide valve. This double-acting mechanism meant that the engine provided two power strokes per crankshaft revolution. The engine was water-cooled and ran quietly when under no load.

Lenoir patented his engine in 1860. He licensed several Paris workshops to build his engines. For some applications, they were better than steam engines, and they had the advantage of starting more quickly and being more adaptable to modest tasks. Depending on the work they had to perform, Lenoir made his engines in sizes from one-half to six horsepower, with three-horsepower engines being the most common.

Purchasers of the Lenoir engines used them for such jobs as pumping water out of mines and running printing presses. During the 1860’s, more than five hundred were in use in France, Great Britain, and other European countries. Lenoir himself tried to expand the market for his engines by experimenting with their application to transportation. For example, he used one of his two-horsepower engines to power a boat, and he also installed his engine in various land vehicles. In 1862, his “hydrocarbon carriage”—now thought of as the first automobile Automobiles;and internal combustion engines[Internal combustion engines] to be powered by an internal combustion engine—made several short, slow journeys in Paris. It was later sold to Czar Alexander II of Russia. In 1863, Lenoir used an improved engine, which was powered by liquid petroleum Petroleum;and internal combustion engines[Internal combustion engines] and a primitive carburetor, in a three-wheeled wagon that made a fifty-mile road trip.

With widespread use of Lenoir engines came an equally widespread recognition of their many deficiencies. The engines were extremely inefficient, with efficiencies varying between 3 percent and 5 percent. This problem had several causes: The air-gas mixture in the engines was not compressed, resulting in diminished power. Under heavy loads, the engines ran roughly and noisily, mainly as a result of the midstroke ignition, when the piston was moving most rapidly. Furthermore, the Lenoir engine was wasteful in its use of illuminating gas. Maintenance costs were also high. The engine had to be frequently lubricated, its batteries Batteries, electrical had to be recharged, and its spark plugs required regular cleaning.

All of these factors meant that the operating costs of Lenoir’s engines were much higher than those of steam engines with comparable power. Despite these problems, and in some ways because of them, the Lenoir engine became the jumping-off point for further developments. Indeed, some scholars state that Lenoir’s greatest achievement was not his internal combustion engine but the stimulus it provided to his successors, who transformed his engine into the vastly improved machine that profoundly influenced many twentieth century industries.


Although he was unable to profit financially from its evolution, Lenoir, who lived until 1900, was able to witness the internal combustion engine’s improvements and successes in the hands of others. The first progress occurred when a better cooling system reduced gas consumption and lowered the temperature of exhaust gases, both of which heightened efficiency. Greater efficiency gains came from the recognition that compression of the gas-air mixture would maximize the power gained from the fuel. Engineers and scientists studied the performance and thermodynamics of the Lenoir engine. One of them, Alphonse Beau de Rochas Beau de Rochas, Alphonse , derived theoretically the fundamental principles for the efficient operation of internal combustion engines. His theoretical proposal of a four-stroke cycle to maximize efficiency was extremely influential. In the first stroke, a mixture of gas and air is drawn into the cylinder. During the second stroke, the piston compresses the mixture. When this mixture is ignited, the third (or power) stroke is produced. During the fourth stroke, the products of combustion are removed from the cylinder.

Nikolaus August Otto Otto, Nikolaus August , a practical businessman and engineer, also derived inspiration from the Lenoir engine, but, unlike Beau de Rochas Beau de Rochas, Alphonse , he actually constructed internal combustion engines based on the four-stroke cycle. With much experimentation, Otto was able by 1868 to make an engine that could function at eighty explosions per minute, despite varying loads. In 1876, he built a three-horsepower engine that had an 11 percent efficiency. This low-weight engine had great commercial success (more than thirty-five thousand were sold), and it served as a model for Gottlieb Daimler Daimler, Gottlieb , who, in 1885, invented a device that today is recognized as the basis for all modern internal combustion engines.

Daimler used his engine to propel the world’s first four-wheeled motor vehicles in 1886, and Carl Benz Benz, Carl , in the same year, received a patent for his gas-fueled car. During the twentieth century, the internal combustion engine proved its versatility in multiple practical applications, from tiny model airplanes to gigantic trucks. It created the automobile age, with its benefits (individualized transportation) and problems (accidents and pollution). The task facing twenty-first century Lenoirs and Ottos is to invent a new machine that will maximize the benefits and minimize the problems revealed by these earlier engines.

Further Reading

  • Cummins, C. Lyle. Internal Fire. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 1989. This well-illustrated history of the internal combustion engine has a good bibliography and index.
  • Daniels, Jeff. Driving Force: The Evolution of the Car Engine. Newbury Park, Calif.: Haynes, 2002. This general history of the internal combustion engine includes illustrations and indexes.
  • Eckermann, Erik. World History of the Automobile. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001. This updated English translation of a work originally published in German in 1989 contains many photographs and diagrams, along with a glossary, bibliography, and five helpful indexes.
  • Stone, Richard. Introduction to Internal Combustion Engines. 3d ed. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 1989. This textbook provides students and engineers with the background necessary to understand the history, science, and technology of the internal combustion engine. It also contains exercises, references, and an index.

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