No. 3, 2004

Anatoly Troshin,
Cand. Sc. (Techn.)


The world's first gasoline engine was constructed in Russia

The invention of the internal combustion gasoline engine is justly regarded as a major event in the history of engineering of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Few people know, however, that the first gasoline engine was constructed in Russia by Captain Ogneslav Kostovich, whose invention preceded the engine developed by the German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

Forerunners of the gasoline era

The industrial revolution and the rapid economic development in the 19th century demanded the creation of a compact all-purpose engine. Steam engines were not suitable: they were too bulky, while their efficiency coefficient was not above 10%. Besides, their operation involved a considerable expenditure of fuel (firewood or coal) and the need to constantly "keep up steam."

The development in 1860 of the first internal combustion engine using illuminating gas as fuel, designed by the Belgian inventor Jean Etienne Lenoir, seemed to point out the right way to coping with that problem. About 300 engines of his design were manufactured in the next four years. However, its rather small efficiency coefficient and complicated operation and servicing did not permit that engine to become more widely employed in industry.

In 1864, the German inventor Nikolaus August Otto obtained a patent for an improved design of the gas engine which was almost five times as efficient as Lenoir's creation. In the years that followed, nearly 5,000 engines of Otto's design were produced. In 1877, Nikolaus August Otto obtained a patent for a new engine with a four-stroke cycle. Modern designs of engines are still based on that principle. By 1897, nearly 42,000 four-stroke gas engines of Otto's design had been produced. However, the fact that his engine used illuminating gas as fuel considerably narrowed the sphere of its employment. To ensure a steady operation of gas engines, it was necessary to have a gas works nearby or to pump large amounts of gas over a pipeline. Besides, illuminating gas had a low heat value of combustion and those gas engines had large dimensions and a considerable weight. The problem could be solved only with the use of a different type of fuel.

Western literature on the history of engineering attributes the development of the first-ever gasoline engine to the German inventor Gottlieb Daimler who constructed a working model of it in 1883. In 1885, he constructed an operational single-cylinder engine which had a power of 5.9 kilowatts and which was installed on a four-wheeled carriage. A careful study of the archives, however, shows that the priority in developing the world's first gasoline engine belongs to the Russian inventor Captain Ogneslav Kostovich.

From a mini-submarine to a dirigible

Ogneslav Kostovich was born in 1851 in the town of Palanka, Serbia. After graduating from the Belgrade technical college and a navigation school he received the diploma of a merchant marine captain. In the 1870s he was already well known as the inventor of a kind of multiple plywood, which he named "arborite," that did not come apart even in boiling water. He also invented original mechanisms for hoisting ships and motor boats. During the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, he captained the steamship Ada which ferried the Russian troops. One day, when the Ada sailed empty, she was fired upon by a Turkish armored cruiser. Sustaining serious damage, the steamship foundered. Luckily, a Russian cutter happened near-by and rescued the Ada sailors floundering about the sea together with their captain.

The sinking of his ship prompted Captain Kostovich to start work on a mini-submarine capable of waging struggle against enemy naval vessels.

Before long he moved to St. Petersburg, and in October 1878, he made an appeal to Emperor Alexander II in which he applied for Russian citizenship and expressed readiness to turn his invention over to Russia. His Imperial Majesty was kind enough to grant Russian citizenship to Ogneslav Kostovich.

As early as on November 10, 1878, his mini-submarine project was considered at a meeting of the Scientific Section of the Maritime Technical Committee. Captain Kostovich's project envisaged a small submarine with a single propelling screw actuated by the muscular energy of two sailors. In its fore quarters the submarine was intended to have a "launching tube," a prototype of the torpedo tube, for the successive launching of 12 torpedoes with the help of compressed air - the same air that was used by the crew for breathing. In the course of the discussion specialists discovered many drawbacks in the project, and they issued appropriate recommendations to the inventor for the elimination of those drawbacks. In his remarks on the project, Vice-Admiral Stetsenko asked: "Do you, Mr. Kostovich, seriously believe that two sailors, even the heftiest of them, will be able, by the force of their muscles alone, to impart a speed of 15 knots to your submarine?" Captain Seleznyov of the Corps of Mechanical Engineers of the Fleet added: "No, you can't do without a powerful engine here!" Having heard all those reasonable comments, the inventor got down to studying seriously the various engines existing at the time. He began visiting libraries regularly and met with prominent Russian scientists and engineers.

Once he even chanced to listen to a lecture delivered by a famous Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleyev in which the great Russian scientist described his designs of a stratosphere balloon with a pressurized cabin and a dirigible containing cylinders with compressed air. Ogneslav Kostovich became very enthusiastic about aeronautics, and as early as in August 1879, he submitted his own design of a dirigible to the First Russian Society of Aeronauts.

The birth of the first gasoline engine

The members of the Society found Captain Kostovich's design of a dirigible interesting and quite realistic. "In the present circumstances we cannot permit being preceded by any other nation," said an appeal to render material support to the inventor. Admiral Nikolay Sokovnin was the first to sign that document. Organized with the support of Dmitry Mendeleyev and Vice-Admiral Mikhail Rykachyov, a future academician, was an Association for the Construction of the Russia Airship. Shares to a total sum of 200,000 rubles were collected, and the funding by the Military Department, to the amount of 35,000 rubles, was solicited and secured.

The military decided to classify all information about the dirigible called Russia. But it was impossible to make secret the construction of such a large airship: the public was disquieted by rumors about it. It must have been then that the idea of using a misinformation ploy was born in the corridors of the Russian intelligence service. Many newspapers and magazines published a drawing, by an unnamed artist, of an absurd flying machine with flapping wings. Not surprisingly, the sight of such a foolish construction gradually cooled the enthusiasm of the public and, perhaps, of the informants abroad. That, by the way, enabled Captain Kostovich to continue working quietly on the design of the dirigible called Russia. The 80-horse power gasoline internal combustion engine with a spark ignition in Captain Kostovich's design evoked the greatest interest of scientists and engineers. In 1880, Kostovich made with his own hands a small-scale model of an engine with two cylinders placed on the same plane, one opposite the other. The engine was tested successfully, which made the inventor confident that it was possible to construct a more powerful motor both for a dirigible and for a submarine the design of which he submitted to the Naval Department for a second time that year. Early next year Captain Kostovich installed this engine on a cutter of his own design.

On August 8, 1882, the construction of the Russia dirigible and a powerful engine for it began at the Okhta shipyard in St. Petersburg. Kostovich had flatly rejected several proposals to carry out this work abroad and announced in the press that the airship would be constructed with Russian materials and only by Russian workers. Two years later, the engine was ready, and soon it was tested. Sufficiently compact in size, it was comparable in power with that of the average modern passenger car. Captain Kostovich's engine had eight cylinders placed horizontally in two sets of four, one opposite the other. The cylinders, manufactured of cast bronze, had a diameter of 120 mm and a piston stroke of 240 mm. The connecting rod head, also of cast bronze, comprised two hemispherical chambers, a box containing valves, and a device to ignite a fuel-and-air mixture. The cylinders of the left and right set were connected in pairs. And so, two cylinders, the connecting rod head and the valve box formed a single assembly. The cylinders were installed on a base plate.

A steel crankshaft placed 790 mm above the cylinders had six cranks with eight crankpins. A flywheel was fixed at one end of the crankshaft. The upper and lower connecting rods were fashioned out of steel pipes. The rods were threaded at both ends and had caps with inserts which connected them to the valve rockers and the crankpins of the crankshaft. Consequently, Captain Kostovich's engine contained some design elements of the steam engine - connecting rods and valve rockers. Cast-bronze pistons accommodated five compressor rings. The valve rockers, of which there were eight, were fixed on two shafts - on the right and on the left side.

When the engine was operating, the pistons of the opposite cylinders moved in the opposite direction. Through the lower connecting rods, the valve rockers and the upper connecting rods the motion of the pistons was transmitted to the crankshaft. The connecting rod heads and the valve boxes had one inlet valve which opened automatically - owing to rarefaction in the cylinder, and one exhaust valve which opened and closed by the action of the inlet or exhaust camshaft.

The air-gasoline mixture prepared in the carburetor entered the connecting rod head via the inlet valve. An electric spark ignited the mixture; this occurred as soon as there was a break in the electrical circuit in a device on top of the valve box, which was operated by the camshaft with the help of an electric circuit and a spider. The camshaft was located between the crankshaft and the cylinders. It was also actuated by the electric circuit via a spider attached to the end of the crankshaft.

A water-cooled cowl was soldered on over the cylinders. The engine was lubricated by wick oilers fixed to the connecting rod heads, the bearing caps of the crankshaft, the cylinders, and the bearings of the camshaft. The injection of the fuel-and-air mixture was regulated by a throttle cock on the connecting pipe leading to the cylinder.

A tragic end

By early 1889, all the parts of the dirigible, besides the engine, had been manufactured and stored in a hangar especially rented for the purpose. It was intended to stretch a silk fabric over the wooden frame of the dirigible and to install in its center a vertical shaft housing the cabin, the engine and the cylinders containing compressed air. The propelling screw would be installed in the tail quarters. Below, suspended from the end of the shaft was to be an open gondola. All the rigid structural elements were to be manufactured of "arborite."

To assemble the dirigible a further sum of 55,000 rubles was required, and Captain Kostovich turned to the war minister for it. After lengthy deliberations by various official bodies, his request was turned down.

But, as it often happens, troubles came in droves. First, the hangar caught fire, and nobody knew what caused it. Luckily, the engine was not damaged, unlike most of the other parts of the dirigible. After that the people who had hired out the hangar demanded it to be vacated. They were followed by the creditors and shareholders who demanded their money back.

On the Neva embankment in St. Petersburg Captain Kostovich had a workshop named "Arborite," where he manufactured hulls for boats and cutters, as well as other structural elements. He made large quantities of them so as to somehow meet his debt obligations. But his proceeds were too small to cope with the difficulties. As a last resort, he offered to the Military Engineering Department to purchase his dirigible with all his rights. In 1890, a commission of the Main Engineering Department rejected his offer, deciding that the required outlays - 410,000 rubles - would be untimely. The commission further motivated its refusal by insisting that "the giant dirigible balloon … is of rather dubious military importance." That is how Russia forfeited its priority in strategic aeronautics. It was ten years later that foreign-made dirigibles went up into the air. They were designed by Alberto Santos-Dumont and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Captain Ogneslav Kostovich, died on December 30, 1916, in a modest room of Moskva hotel in St. Petersburg, and buried at the Preobrazhenskoye cemetery.

As for the engine he invented, up till 1947 it was preserved in a special place at the repair shop of the Okhta shipyard in St. Petersburg.

Later the engine was handed over to the museum of the Air Force Academy in the town of Monino near Moscow. That is where it is exhibited today in the section called "Aircraft Engines."

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Oil of Russia, No. 3, 2004
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