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Otto, Nikolaus August

engine stroke gas piston

(1832–91) German engineer: effectively devised the four-stroke internal combustion engine.

Although he lacked conventional engineering experience, Otto became fascinated by the gas engine devised by J Lenoir (1822–1900); this was a double-acting low-compression engine and the first internal combustion engine to be made on any scale. Otto and two friends began to make similar engines; and then in 1876 he described the system usually called the Otto cycle, in which an explodable mixture of air and gas is drawn into the cylinder by the piston (the induction stroke), compressed on a second (compression) stroke, ignited near the top dead centre piston position (the combustion stroke, in which the hot expanding gases provide the power to drive the piston) and the burned gases are then driven out of the cylinder on a fourth (exhaust) stroke (see diagram above). The new engine was quiet and fairly efficient and sold well. However, in 1886 his competitors showed that A B de Rochas (1815–93) had suggested the principle in an obscure pamphlet, although he had not developed the idea, and this invalidated Otto’s patent. Soon Otto’s gas engine, mainly used in small factories, was developed for use with gasoline (petrol) vapour and air, using a carburettor to control the mixture and improved ignition systems; the resulting engine was well suited for the motor car. In these developments K Benz (1844–1929), G Daimler (1834–1900), W Maybach (1846–1929) and F W Lanchester (1868–1946) all played important parts, and the result is still dominant for this purpose.

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