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Trials and tribulations of the marine diesel -A look back at the history of diesel ships

01 Nov 2003
With two installations in very different vessels in separate locations in Europe, the year 1903 marked the beginning of the success story of the diesel marine propulsion engine. In France, the barge Petit Pierre was equipped with a small diesel engine for operation on the Rhine-Marne canal while in Russia, the river tanker Vandal was fitted with three diesel engines for Caspian Sea service.
In the early 1890?s, Rudolf Diesel presented his idea of an economic combustion engine with the idea of completely replacing the steam engine. To achieve this objective he intended to use fuels of types including gaseous, liquid and solid (powder or dust) but did not, at the outset, consider gas oil or heavy fuel oil. However, there was already at least one engine which ran on gas oil. This was the Akroyd engine, forerunner of all hot bulb engines, often called semi-diesel engine. Additionally, there was also the Brayton engine, from which Diesel possibly copied the idea to use compressed air to blow the fuel into the combustion chamber.
In 1892, Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for his concept of an internal combustion engine with the highest possible efficiency, i.e. 73.2 % efficiency of the Carnot process. However, the first successfully running test engine in 1897 had an efficiency of only 26.2 % compared to the 55% of today?s diesel engines.
Early in 1893, Diesel concluded contracts with Maschinenfabrik Augsburg (later MAN), Krupp and Sulzer. MAN and Krupp decided to jointly develop the engine according to the Diesel patent DRP 67207 and, after a successful run of the test engine in early 1897, the engine was deemed to be ready. By the end of 1898, Diesel had concluded me than 20 licence agreements.
After this initial period, further development was started by a number of manufacturers with one of the main problems, apart from the weight of the engines, being the achievement of a reversing function.
In 1902, Ludwig Nobel in Saint Petersburg started the development of a reversible two-stroke engine for marine application which was tested in 1905. The Nobel reversing mechanism is still used today as the basic principle for all reversing gears that work on a moveable camshaft. The Italian engineer Cesidio Del Proposto in 1903 was granted a patent for a reversing gear which incorporated an electric motor for going astern and direct drive of the propeller shaft in ahead mode.
In any technical history there is invariably a lot of discussions as to who or what was first. With the marine diesel engine, however, there is no such confusion. We know for certain that both Petit Pierre and Vandal were equipped with their engines in 1903 and both tested.

Petit Pierre
The engine for this inland waterway barge was supplied and installed by Dyckhoff, on the Rhine-Marne-Canal, in 1903 and consisted of a two-cylinder, opposed piston-type engine. This four-stroke diesel had a bore of 210 mm and a stroke of 250 mm giving a cubic capacity of 16.6 litres.
At a speed of 360 rpm, the engine had an output of 25 hp although some sources claim it was 30 hp. Reversing of the propulsion unit was achieved by means of a variable-pitch propeller since the engine itself was not reversible.
With a length of about 38.50m and a breadth of nearly 5m, the Petit Pierre had a cargo capacity of 265 tonnes.
Vandal and Ssarmat
There is no doubt that the engineering works of Ludwig Nobel in Saint Petersburg made the greatest contribution to the introduction of diesel marine propulsion engines when, in 1903, they installed three non-reversible engines of 120 hp each onboard the Vandal. The engines were manufactured by Aktiebolaget Diesels Motorer in Sweden and had a bore of 290 mm and a stroke of 430 mm and an engine speed of 240 rpm. These plunger-type three-cylinder engines were the lightest of their day with only 100 kg/hp and had a full-load fuel consumption of only 173 g/hph.
Vandal was the first vessel to be fitted with a diesel-electric propulsion plant and not, as stated in some publications, equipped with a system using the Del Proposto principle. All three diesel engines were directly coupled to a 500 volt DC generator giving an output of 85 kW.
The hull of the Vandal and her sister ship, Ssarmat, were built near Novgorod and had a length of about 75m and a breadth of 9.70m. With a deadweight of 800 tonnes, they were tree times larger than the French barge Petit Pierre.
The propulsion system of the Ssarmat differed from that of the Vandal and, in this case, Nobel used four-cylinder engines of their own design with an output of 180 hp. Compared with the Swedish engines, their power to weight ratio was less favourable by 25%. The engines were coupled via clutches directly to the propeller shafts for power ahead and coupled to generators for going astern. This solution, known as ?system Del Proposto?, was simultaneously developed by Nobel in Russia and by Cesidio Del Proposto in Italy. It is recorded that the engines of Vandal and Ssarmat functioned without major problems.

Selandia
The vessels described so far, including the gunboats, were more or less designed and equipped for river and canal services, but the question as to which was the first seagoing vessel equipped with a diesel engine for main propulsion is not so clear. The Djelo, which followed Vandal and Ssarmat for services on the Caspian and the Dutch Vulcanus, are often quoted as being the first in this context. However, if one accepts that seagoing means Atlantic capability, there is no doubt that the answer is Selandia. In the January 1932 issue of The Motor Ship, one can read the story ?The Selandia?s first 20 years?. The article states that "There are not many readers who do not know that the Selandia is the world?s first large seagoing motor ship. Before her time there were other craft propelled by oil engines, one in particular representing a bold step at that period, although not approaching the size and the power of the vessel we are dealing."
The Selandia was ordered by the Danish shipping company East Asiatic Company (EAC) from Burmeister & Wain (B&W) in Copenhagen and commissioned in 1912 for liner service between Bangkok and the United Kingdom. Thus EAC became the first operator of diesel engine-powered vessels between international destinations. At that time it was very courageous to order vessels with a largely untried and revolutionary propulsion plant. But the contract between B&W and EAC included the clause that the diesel engines should be replaced by steam engines if they did not work satisfactorily.
In this case, both the yard and ship owner would have taken 50% of the cost for the replacement. Once in service however, the new plant proved to be very efficient and reliable and the company?s entire fleet was diesel-powered within a few years.
With a length of 113m, a breadth of 16m and a depth of 7m, the 7,000 dwt Selandia was powered by two B&W diesel engines with an output of 1,000 hp each which gave the vessel a service speed of 11 knots. In addition, the generating sets were also powered by diesel engines. The appearance of this vessel on the high seas generated enormous interest world-wide. In London, Sir Winston Churchill, at that time Minister of Naval Affairs, was very impressed and ordered a study to find out whether the engines could be used as propulsion plants for naval vessels.
The rest, as they say, is history. The diesel engine went on to become the dominant power plant for the marine industry and by the early 1950?s had supplanted the steam engine.