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Just call me squirrel brain
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Baraboo, WI, USA

Although Nikolaus Otto wanted to attend technical school, it was not to be. The economic decline following the unsuccessful German revolution of 1848 left his mother unable to afford to send him (Nikolaus’ father, the village postmaster and innkeeper, had died shortly after the boy’s birth). So instead, Nikolaus took a job as a grocery store clerk, then as a traveling salesman, peddling tea, sugar, and kitchenware to grocery stores across western Germany, dreaming all the while (presumably) of life as an engineer.

While traveling on his sales circuit Otto learned of the gas-powered internal combustion engine that had been invented by Etienne Lenoir. Lenoir’s invention was revolutionary (being the world’s first workable internal combustion engine) but impractical. It was exceedingly noisy, inefficient, generated excessive heat, and relied on expensive fuel that had to be transported and stored in a gaseous state. The problems with Lenoir’s engine, Otto believed, could be solved by using liquid fuel instead. Although he had no formal technical education, Otto invented a carburetor and in 1861 created a new gasoline-powered engine—what would become the world’s first practical internal combustion engine.

Lacking the money to commercialize his invention, in 1864 Otto partnered with Eugen Langen, a German businessman who recognized the potential of Otto’s engine. Together they built a factory, improved the protypes, and in 1867 exhibited the engine at the Paris Exhibition, where it won the gold medal. With the resulting publicity, business boomed. Otto and Langen brought on additional investors and hired a brilliant engineer named Gottleib Daimler as their technical director. By the mid 1870’s the company (by then called Gasmotoren-Frabrik Deutz AG) was the world’s premier engine manufacturer and Nikolaus Otto had become a wealthy man.

In 1876 Otto came up with a new and improved design, changing the internal combustion engine forever. To increase power and efficiency, while decreasing noise and vibration, he invented a revolutionary four stroke engine, going against the prevailing belief that every cylinder stroke should produce power. The four-stroke engine became known as the “Otto engine” and his concept was called the “Otto cycle.” The engine was an immediate success. In 1882 Daimler installed one in a carriage and created the world’s first four-wheeled automobile.

Having invented machines that would change the world, Nikolaus Otto died in Cologne at age 58, on January 26, 1891, one hundred thirty-two years ago