Jean Etienne Lenoir - from garcons to world-famous inventors

Jean Etienne Lenoir - from garcons to world-famous inventors

The long road to invention

The third decade of the 19th century began, but, despite the attempts of various inventors, a workable internal combustion engine was never designed and put into production. Steam engines reigned supreme in industry.
And in 1822, in a small Belgian town, Jean Etienne Lenoir was born into the family of a small merchant, who, having matured, corrected this shortcoming.

His father died when the boy was only eight years old, and as a child, Jean experienced hardship early. And when the child was barely 16, another tragedy happened - his mother, a native Parisian, passed away. An orphaned boy went on foot to seek his fortune in Paris, where his uncle (mother’s brother) lived, a successful engineer.

His uncle’s mansion made an indelible impression on young Lenoir, but the closest relative himself turned out to be much more unattractive - he handed over several francs to his nephew through a footman and advised him to get out. In order not to die of hunger, Jean got a job as a garçon (waiter) in a small restaurant.

During this difficult time (apparently, under the impression of the wealth of his successful uncle-engineer), the young man develops a strong craving for technology: he spends the tips he receives in Parisian malls, buying up printed publications with materials on the design of heat engines, and even accidentally acquires the works of S. Carnot, which he still doesn’t understand anything about.

Over time, a new hobby completely takes over the young man’s mind, and Jean begins to be burdened by the profession of a garçon, which he has been engaged in for more than two years. Having abruptly changed his course in life, Lenoir got a job as a worker at an enamel factory, where his gradual development as a technician took place. Soon he comes up with a new method of applying enamel, for which he receives stable dividends from the owner, and his financial situation improves noticeably.

As you know, any employee always seems to be paid too little. And then one fine day Lenoir puts forward a demand to the owner to pay more for his invention. The ending is standard: Jean flies out onto the street, quickly eats up his last money, begs and even serves a 3-month prison sentence for illegal business (as the organizer of an illegal locksmith workshop).

As a result, the unemployed and previously convicted Lenoir, who was eking out a half-starved existence, was hired out of pity by the Frenchized Italian Hippolyte Marinoni into his galvanoplastic workshop. Soon, the savvy Lenoir comes up with a number of inventions to reduce the cost of production.

Three years later, Jean invents a new method of electroplating, but, having learned from previous experience, he first patents it and then proposes it to Marinoni. Having assessed the prospects for using the invention, the owner of the workshop agrees to the conditions put forward. Lenoir's professional reputation on the owner's scale increases even more, and as a result their relationship becomes partnership and even comradeship.

For the future inventor, this was a huge success: an excellent mechanic and electrical engineer, Marinoni, subsequently became a mentor and assistant to the owner. And now the money and free time that have appeared allow Lenoir to completely immerse himself in the creative process of implementing a long-cherished idea - the creation of an inexpensive, efficient internal combustion engine.

According to the inventor’s recollections, at that time the main question that tormented him was the choice of fuel for use in his future engine. An incident helped me decide.

One day Jean was having dinner at a restaurant where he once worked as a garçon. The lighting in it was organized using small gas jets placed above each table. The glass cap of the cone above Lenoir's table turned out to be broken, and the garçon approached and suggested using a wine glass instead.

While the garçon was looking for matches, a lot of gas accumulated under the glass; after it was set on fire, a micro-explosion occurred and the glass flew high into the air. It was then that Lenoir came up with the idea of ​​using lighting gas in his car, which was always at hand in Paris.

To be fair, it should be noted that the use of gas as a fuel was proposed by John Barber back in 1791. But its internal combustion engine never left the exploratory design stage.

Lenoir was a technically illiterate, capable self-taught person, and in these circumstances he chooses the most rational path - he decides to familiarize himself with the developments of his predecessors. He spends weeks in the patent office, where he systematically and progressively searches for all the patents for internal combustion engines. By studying their descriptive part, Jean not only gains technical knowledge, but also, like an intelligent person, learns not from his own, but from the mistakes of others.

And little by little, the idea arises in the head of a young talented technician to construct a workable internal combustion engine, combining all those sound ideas that were discovered by the inventors who blazed this difficult path before him.

Smart Lenoir did not invent the engine from scratch, he took a simpler and at the same time more complex path - he decided to combine many previously invented technical solutions in a single design, taking from each invention (as it seemed to him) the most important and viable (this creative process of careful analysis of numerous patents Lenoir subsequently described in detail).

The task was not easy, since there were many inventions, but not a single engine achieved technical perfection and did not go into mass production. Jean carefully selected and analyzed materials, not wanting to accidentally repeat someone else’s previously developed design in his heat engine, and then fight back in court defending his own patent.

In modern language, Lenoir (as he stated in his memoirs) even before the start of construction, conducted an in-depth patent study of the development of gas engines that never made it past the prototype stage, and eventually collected a decent patent archive.

This activity undoubtedly enriched him with extensive practical knowledge. But his theoretical knowledge was meager, which ultimately did not lead him to the idea of ​​​​using pre-compression of the combustible mixture before igniting it - it seemed to him that there was no benefit in this, and it only complicated the design of the engine.

As a result, his invention, protected by a French patent dated January 24, 1860, according to the later introduced classification of internal combustion engines, was classified as “no compression” engines.

As historians note, Lenoir did not design the new motor alone. In the manufacture and fine-tuning of the first working samples, the inventor was helped by Ippolit Marinoni, who was a more experienced mechanic than Lenoir, put a lot of work into the success of the conceived business, and as a result successfully embodied the inventor’s ideas in metal. Some designers (in particular G. Guldner) believed that it was Marinoni who developed a deeply thought-out model of the Lenoir engine that later became a standard model.

However, initially Marinoni, whose production was reoriented to the production of parts for steam engines, was skeptical of Jean’s idea and refused to participate in his venture. Things came to a breakdown: proud Lenoir left for England in February 1860, patented his invention there and tried to interest English industrialists in building an engine. But they also perceive his invention with distrust and invite him to first present a working prototype.

As a result, the inventor, broken by the hardships he suffered, having spent all his funds and again turned into a beggar, returns to Paris and tearfully begs Marinoni to take him on as a simple worker, just to allow him to slowly manufacture his engine in his free time.

Apparently, Marinoni was a kind man, he again accepted Lenoir into the factory and even soon, becoming interested in his idea, began to help him, resolving numerous design difficulties that arose during the construction of the engine.

As a result, enthusiasm and technical experience working in tandem brought practical results in the form of a workable product.

Birth of an engine

The engine, designed at the Marinoni factory, was very simple and worked according to an algorithm reminiscent of the operating cycles of a steam engine. A disk piston, as in a steam engine, divided the volume of the cylinder into two cavities. Let's say that when the car is stopped, it remains on the left side of the cylinder.

Driven by the starting handle and moving to the right, the piston makes a little less than half its stroke and at this time sucks the gas-air mixture into the left cavity of the cylinder. Then the inlet window is closed by the spool, then the mixture is ignited by means of an electric spark, and the gas pressure generated during the combustion of the mixture moves the piston to the extreme right position (Fig. “b” and “c”), and the piston is strongly pushed through the rod and slide flywheel.

Then the right inlet window and the left exhaust window open. The piston, driven by the flywheel that has gained inertia to the left position, pushes the exhaust gases out of the left cavity and at the same time sucks a new gas-air charge into the resulting right one. After the right intake port is closed by the spool, the mixture is ignited by a spark and the piston quickly returns to the left position, completing the cycle of a full revolution of the flywheel.

Thus, Lenoir invented a workable two-stroke “double-acting” gas engine, since each stroke (the movement of the piston from one extreme position to the other) combined the power stroke, combustion, as well as the intake of a fresh charge and the exhaust of exhaust gases.

It is interesting to note that Lenoir was the first to stories mass engine building, he used an electric ignition system (at that time not yet reliable enough), consisting of two galvanic Bunsen cells giving a total voltage of 3,62 V, an induction coil, a breaker and two spark plugs with porcelain insulators and platinum electrodes (Ruhmkorff spiral). This testifies to the inventor’s intelligence and good knowledge of electrical innovations of those years (or the awareness of his partner Marinoni).

It is also worth noting that Lenoir did not hide the fact that in his invention he used certain design solutions from other people’s patents. For example, an advertisement published before the start of engine sales stated:

“ Lenoir’s car a piston was used according to Pat. Street; it is double-acting, like a Lebon engine; ignites with an electric spark like a Rivaz car; it can work with volatile hydrogen compounds like Herskine-Hasard; perhaps even a witty distribution of eccentrics can be found at Talbot..."

Another advantage was the overall layout of the engine, in particular the horizontal arrangement of the cylinder. This allowed it to be installed in rooms with low ceilings, and also made it easier to maintain the machine. To prevent overheating, the cylinder and its head were equipped with a water jacket and cooled with running water.

The engine had a lot of disadvantages: it was terribly uneconomical, consuming about three cubic meters of illuminating (coal) gas per 1 horsepower per hour; Lubricating oil was poured into it in buckets, for which an oiler was constantly on duty at the engine; despite the presence of water cooling (120 m3 water per horsepower-hour), the spool often jammed due to overheating, and the engine stopped; the maximum effective efficiency of the machine was only 4–5% at 47…130 rpm.

Yes, it was also discovered that the cost of gas consumed during the operation of a prototype Lenoir engine turned out to be six times higher than the cost of coal for a working steam engine (per 1 hp).

It would seem that the listed shortcomings will lead to the failure of the planned business, the engines will not find demand, and Lenoir’s invention will add to the numerous list of unclaimed experimental internal combustion engines.

However, the first production engines, which appeared in 1860, despite the obvious discrepancy between their performance characteristics and the previously published boastful advertising, which predicted the imminent inevitable death of steam engines, quickly began to find their place in printing houses and small urban industries.

The main advantage of the new type of engines was that they were compact and started up in seconds, while steam engines took up a lot of space and required a lot of fuss with boiling water in a boiler, as well as the presence of servants.

Other important advantages of Lenoir engines were the relative quietness of operation and smoke-free exhaust, which (unlike steam engines) allowed them to be used in the center of Paris and other large cities near fashionable mansions without complaints from residents about disturbing the silence and air pollution. They also cost much less than steam engines, took up little space, did not require premises for storing coal, did not require a massive foundation and could be installed on any floors of buildings.

In a word, Lenoir and Marinoni were lucky - their engines were born exactly at the moment when the need for them arose, and exactly in the place where they were really needed. They first filled existing niches in Paris, then spread throughout France, and then began to spread in England.

And the Marinoni factory turned into the world's first plant for the production of internal combustion engines.

Subsequently, when it was discovered that, due to the design features, the power of Lenoir engines could not exceed 12 hp. p., steam engines could breathe a sigh of relief and work calmly - such a motor was not their competitor.

After his victory in the courts, Etienne Lenoir could calmly enjoy the laurels of the discoverer and proudly walk around the halls of technical exhibitions. His triumph lasted 6 years and ended in 1867, when two German inventors Otto and Langen presented their “atmospheric machine”, whose efficiency reached 14%, at an exhibition in Paris.


Usually, historians belittled the role of Lenoir, calling him a kind of quick-witted worker who, “...through a painstaking selection of already known parts and a skillful examination of the most advantageous working conditions, successfully overcoming practical difficulties...”, accidentally designed a primitive internal combustion engine.

This point of view is wrong. Lenoir was a talented self-taught person, he took a long time to achieve the task, independently gained knowledge and production experience, studied almost all the latest inventions of his time and ultimately accomplished what many engineers who tried to solve this problem before him could not achieve.

And subsequently, from 1861 to 1867, there was no worthy replacement for the mass-produced Lenoir engines, and individual samples of the produced engines of his design were in operation until 1905.

As soon as engine sales began, inventors immediately emerged, as if from underground, and hastened to accuse Lenoir of appropriating their ideas. Of these, the most persistent were Hugon and Reitman. But Lenoir was lucky here too - although the trials cost him a lot of money and frayed nerves, the judges still decided the cases in his favor.

In conclusion, it can be noted that the engines invented by Lenoir (later slightly improved) were used even after the advent of Otto's 4-stroke engines, and ultimately outlived their creator, who died in 1900.

And despite the fact that, according to some designers, in the process of creating the engine, Lenoir did not show either the breadth of thought of the inventor or the creativity of the designer, and in his activities was based on previously cleared ground, he went down in history as the inventor of the world's first internal combustion engine mass production and, accordingly, the first gas engine.

And most importantly, he proved the possibility of creating efficient internal combustion engines and obtaining benefits from their use, which in turn sparked a movement of creative thought among other ICE inventors who worked after him...
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  1. +11
    16 February 2024 06: 11
    Very interesting material, thanks Lev! As a child, I read the book “The Adventures of Inventions,” which was about Lenoir. But this material is no worse!
  2. +15
    16 February 2024 06: 55
    quickly began to find their place in printing houses and small urban industries.
    Not only there - in 1872 in Brünn, the German technician Henlein tested a controlled balloon with a shell made of rubberized fabric. The engine was just a Lenoir motor, running on illuminating gas (which filled the balloon shell) and developing a power of 3,6 hp. To maintain the original shape of the shell as the gas lost from it, an air balloon was used, into which air was pumped by a fan. A special feature of the airship was a rigid frame 30 m long and 4 m wide, suspended on cables to a net that covered the shell. A gondola was attached to the bottom of the frame. This method of suspension significantly increased the rigidity of the airship as a whole. This device was the first to install automatic safety valves (there were two of them), which opened when there was a critical pressure drop in the shell. The first flight of the airship took place on December 13, 1872, the speed reached was about 19 km/h. Inspired by another interesting article about Zeppelin - “it’s just some kind of holiday!” today, thanks to the authors of “history” and “weapons”!
    1. +4
      16 February 2024 11: 22
      Not only there - in 1872 in Brünn, the German technician Henlein tested a controlled balloon
      This is mentioned in the material I used. There is also mention of installing a Lenoir internal combustion engine on a passenger ship.
      I did not include this in the article to keep the presentation compact.
  3. +6
    16 February 2024 08: 09
    Thanks to the Author, interesting and new material for me, well presented.
  4. +6
    16 February 2024 09: 47
    two German inventors Otto and Langen presented their “atmospheric machine” at an exhibition in Paris, whose efficiency reached 14%.
    But this engine was noisier and bulkier...
    1. +5
      16 February 2024 11: 33
      The biggest drawback of the “atmospheric car” (besides the noise) is its high height - for a car with a power of 1,5 hp. ceilings of at least 3,5 m were required.
      Therefore, these engines were not direct competitors of Lenoir internal combustion engines, but they “squeezed out” part of the market due to better efficiency.
      But it was a dead end in engine building
  5. +4
    16 February 2024 11: 45
    I noticed a typo:
    For the future inventor, this was a huge success: an excellent mechanic and electrical engineer, Marinoni, subsequently became a mentor and assistant to the owner.
    "later became his mentor and assistant."

    Moderators please fix this
  6. +4
    16 February 2024 14: 28
    In order not to die of hunger, Jean got a job as a garçon (waiter) in a small restaurant.

    During this difficult time (apparently, under the impression of the wealth of his successful uncle-engineer), the young man develops a strong craving for technology

    This restaurant, Auberge de l'Aigle d'Or (pictured), still exists today. It was while working there that Lenoir patented his first invention in 1845 - a propeller.
    1. +4
      16 February 2024 15: 16
      The source (N. Shpanov The Birth of a Motor) says that the restaurant was called Single Parisian, the exact address is not specified
      1. +3
        16 February 2024 17: 41
        The source (N. Shpanov The Birth of a Motor) says that the restaurant was called Single Parisian, the exact address is not specified

        Since Lengoire was a Knight of the Legion of Honor, his detailed biography is in the Revue de la Société d'Entraide des Members de la Legion d'Honneur, No. 107.
  7. 0
    16 March 2024 21: 59
    ... and even accidentally acquires the works of S. Carnot, of which he still understands nothing.

    It seems that I never understood it, so “without compression.”