Nikolaus Otto – the grocer who created the modern engine


The path of human innovation through history has been unusual, unpredictable and immense.

Some innovators happen upon their great invention – a flicker of epiphany while driving through a snowstorm which solves a problem no one realised existed.

Others are hit with inspiration after a near-death experience, and make it their goal to ensure no one else is hurt by that situation.

But for some, their great invention is a result of a desire to ascend to a new rung in human innovation.

And without their determination, the world would be a very different place.

Nikolaus Otto is one such innovator – the father of the modern engine.

A path not taken

The youngest of six children, Nikolaus Otto was born on the 14th of June, 1832 – the same year his Father died – in Holzhausen an der Haide, western Germany.

He displayed a keen interest in science and technology throughout school. However, despite being a strong student, he dropped out of high school in 1848.

He instead chose to complete a three-year apprenticeship in a small merchandise company, after which he moved to Frankfurt.

There, Otto became a grocery salesman, travelling round western Europe selling ‘colonial goods’. These were foods imported from European colonies, such as rice, tea, coffee and sugar. 

And that could have been Otto’s entry into the annals of history – a relatively clever, west German, grocery salesman.

Otto may have also thought that was to be his fate.

That was until he heard about a certain invention from a Belgian innovator called Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir.

Inspiration and failure

In 1858, inventor Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir unveiled the very first operational internal combustion engine.

The converted steam engine ran on novel gas – also known as ‘illuminating gas’, as its bright flame made it perfect for lanterns.

It wasn’t incredibly efficient, but it was relatively quiet and more importantly – it worked.

When Otto learned of the new engine in autumn of 1860, he immediately understood its value.

He quickly recruited his brother to help him build a version of Lenoir’s engine which used liquid fuel instead of gas for power.

And in 1861, they offered up their new design for a patent application with the Prussian Ministry of Commerce – where it was promptly rejected.

After that, Otto’s brother gave up on the project and it seemed like his journey had ended before it had begun.

However, Otto was far from done.

Collaboration and success

After Otto’s brother left, he was forced to seek assistance – and funding – elsewhere.

Moving from partnership to partnership, he continued to precariously work on his engine.

On an ever-tightening budget, he even worked for one of his partners in exchange for assistance with his engine.

And this was the way until on March 31st, 1864, he met the son of a sugar industrialist, Eugen Langen.

Together they formed the world’s first company solely dedicated to designing and producing internal combustion engines.

Very soon, the newly formed NA Otto & Cie company created the Otto & Langen engine – a free piston atmospheric engine.

Previous iterations had been two-stroke cycle combustion engines. They worked the same way steam engines did, using the pressure from expanding gas to power a crank shaft.

However, the Otto Langen engine was a four-stroke engine. It also used the explosion of gas within the engine to create a vacuum which sucked in the piston.

This allowed it to power the piston in both directions, meaning it used less than half the fuel of Lenoir’s.

This made it unprecedentedly efficient and a commercial success, kick-starting a life of innovation and acclaim for Otto.

On the shoulders of giants

Just like Otto built on the innovations of Lenoir, so have automobile manufacturers since stood on the shoulders of Otto.

Every innovation is the result of countless little steps along the way. We’ve always built and improved on what came before us.

For instance, Otto ended up a success, selling more than 50,000 of his engines in his lifetime. However, interestingly, he had no interest in building engines for transportation.

Similarly, many of the tools we’re using to bring SMLL to life were originally created for wildly different use cases.

Sometimes, true innovation comes from looking at something being used for one purpose and having the imagination to see a deeper potential.

And at SMLL, that’s what we’re all about.