At Expo 1867, the second World Expo to be organised in Paris, a newcomer in energy production made a breakthrough – the gas engine. The emergence of this alternative form of energy production was the subject of significant rivalry at the Expo and it would go on to make ripples as a new method of powering machines and transportation.
In the mid 19th century, demand for accessible and reliable energy was increasing at a rapid pace, driven by the inventions and discoveries of the industrial revolution. The coal-powered steam engine enjoyed a near-monopoly in the production of energy for machinery and locomotives, but improvements in its functioning were beginning to plateau. This gave rise to a quest to find more efficient, more powerful and more practical ways to source, produce and use energy.
Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir invented the first operational gas engine in 1860. Lenoir converted a double-acting steam engine with slide valves so that it could be powered by a mixture of air and coal gas, which was already available in most cities as fuel for lighting. Unlike steam power, which is produced through external combustion, Lenoir’s invention was the first internal combustion engine, which uses a chamber to produce energy by combusting fuel with air.
While Lenoir’s gas engine was the first to be invented, he faced competition at Expo 1867 from German engineer Nikolaus August Otto and his partner Eugen Langen. Together, Otto and Langen worked to reduce the inefficiencies of Lenoir’s engine, which had a low power output compared to the amount of fuel it used. The resulting creation, dubbed the Otto/Langen Atmospheric Engine, was a significant improvement as it used a free piston, thus allowing a greater expansion ratio and increased efficiency.
Both engines were showcased at Expo 1867, with Otto and Langen easily winning the Grand Prix thanks to the practicality and efficiency of their invention. The award and the attention their engine attracted at the Expo allowed Otto and Langen to start serial production the following year, and to continue to invest in research to further the advancements they had already made. In the following decade, the two German inventors would develop an even more practical engine which would go on to serve as the basis for motor vehicle engines, revolutionising transportation.
The invention of the internal combustion engine opened up a range of possibilities as it offered the possibility of a more compact, fuel-efficient and safer form of power than traditional steam engines. While still powered by coal, the innovation allowed energy to be produced in a more controlled and practical way, at a time when the use of electricity was still in its early days.