A Brief History of Marine Diesel Applications – Part 1

Published On: May 20, 2024Categories: Blog

The diesel engine has been a workhorse of industry ever since it was invented in 1893. In a little over 100 years, America went from sailing ships to steam power, to the marine diesel engine. The diesel power transformed shipping as we now know it in innumerable ways. Today, the majority of modern vessels are powered by marine diesel fuel and it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

This Mansfield Service Partners article provides a summary of the history of marine diesel power. 

From Sailing to Steamships

The first sailboats are believed to have been built by the Egyptians in around 4000 BCE. These were simple vessels with masts and sails and hulls made of reeds that traveled up and down the Nile. From there human ingenuity ultimately developed the magnificent sailing ships that circumnavigated the globe. 

The Industrial Revolution was arguably the most rapid paradigm shift in human history. The invention of the steam engine, followed by gasoline and diesel engines, completely transformed life on Earth. It dramatically shortened the travel time between the world’s cities. 

Before steam power, crossing the U.S. or sailing from New York to London took several months. 

With the advent of steam power, people could travel from coast to coast in as little as 5 days or from New York to London in less than two weeks.

From Steam to Marine Diesel Power

While the gasoline internal combustion engine was invented before the diesel, back in 1860, it wasn’t able to displace the steam engine as the powerplant of choice for the factories and plants of the Industrial Revolution. 

When it came to shipping, steam power was the technology that brought about the end of thousands of years of sailing ships serving as the only means to move cargo across seas and oceans. 

It would take the diesel engine to finally supplant steam power. The first marine diesel engines were built in 1903, but the MS Selandia was the first fully diesel-powered ship of note, launched in 1912 — just in time for World War I. 

Marine Diesel Power Comes of Age in WWI

As awful as war is, it has a way of accelerating the progress of technology out of sheer necessity. This was just as true for marine diesel tech as anything else. World War I brought that necessity in spades. Sea power was to be a decisive factor in WW I, so U.S. and European shipyards went to work developing bigger and more powerful marine diesel engines for everything from cargo vessels to battleships and submarines. 

Switching from steam to diesel power was a no-brainer. Marine diesel vessels were far more efficient and able to travel further because marine diesel fuel takes up far less space than the amount of coal needed to move a ship the same distance. Marine diesel engines were much more reliable than old steam engines too. They required a lot less maintenance and had significantly reduced repair costs compared to steam power. They also took much much less room on the ship.

By the end of WW I, marine diesel technology had grown by leaps and bounds. We now had experience of thousands of miles at sea in diesel-powered vessels to draw upon. 

Highlights from the early days of marine diesel power:

  • 1903: The first marine diesel engine is built by Frédéric Dyckhoff and Bochet in France.
  • 1914: WW I begins, igniting the demand for bigger and better marine diesel engines.
  • 1925: The first turbocharged marine diesel powerplant is built in Germany. 
  • 1930s: Diesel fuel injection without air is established. 

The Turbocharger Breathes New Life Into Marine Diesel Engines

You can’t talk about diesel engines without talking about turbochargers. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. The turbocharger was the perfect compliment to the marine diesel engine because it amplified all of its best qualities. It repurposes exhaust energy to push more air into the engine for combustion which allows more diesel fuel to be burned. Marine turbodiesel engines make more power and do it more efficiently. 

The first marine diesel engines with turbochargers were manufactured in 1925. These were 10-cylinder turbodiesels used by the German passenger ships Preussen and Hansestadt Danzig. There’s no question that introducing the turbocharger was one of the most significant milestones in the history of marine diesel engines. Today turbocharged marine diesels are commonplace and they have benefitted from advances in both turbo design and improvements in marine diesel fuel quality over the years. 

How turbocharging makes marine diesel engines better:

  • Enhanced engine power
  • Greater fuel efficiency
  • Reduced emissions
  • Increase responsiveness
  • Improved performance at high loads
  • Efficiency at low loads and speeds
  • Eliminates the need for auxiliary blowers

Standardization in Marine Diesel Fuel Sets the Stage

Just as WW I led to advances in marine diesel technology, so too did the Second World War. War is a terrible thing, but having the fate of the free world at stake is a powerful motivator. Having superior marine diesel technology was a strategic necessity for both the Allied and Axis powers. During WW2 diesel submarine technology made significant progress. Two-stage turbocharging and supercharging were developed during the war. 

One of the most important developments for diesels following WW2 is often overlooked, however. It is the standardization of marine diesel fuel. The logistical challenges of marine diesel fuel distribution to marinas and ships across multiple theaters of war were extraordinary. Add to that the fact that there were no internationally established standards for marine diesel fuel and it’s easy to see where problems could arise.

Initial post-war efforts at marine diesel fuel standardization focused on the basics. They entailed defining specific properties of the fuel such as its viscosity, density, sulfur content, and flash point. In Part Two we will discuss developments in marine diesel fuel delivery, quality assurance, and standardization as well as development in diesel engines in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Mansfield Service Partners for Marine Diesel Distribution

Marinas, fishing fleets, cargo fleets, passenger vessels, and more rely on Mansfield Service Partners for reliable delivery of high-quality marine diesel fuel.

Since 1932, Mansfield Service Partners has been the fuel supplier people trust when it comes to service, on-time fuel delivery, and quality. From 24-hour fuel delivery to industrial lubricants, DEF, and environmental services, like used oil collection — we’ve got you covered. 

Contact Mansfield Service Partners for your business today. Reach us at (800) 683-1331 or email any inquiries to info@mansfield.energy