The Protectors® Podcast

#453 | Douglas Brunt | The Mysterious Disappearance and Lasting Legacy of Rudolph Diesel

September 18, 2023 Dr. Jason Piccolo Episode 453
The Protectors® Podcast
#453 | Douglas Brunt | The Mysterious Disappearance and Lasting Legacy of Rudolph Diesel
The Protectors® Podcast +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ever wondered about the enigma surrounding Rudolph Diesel, the genius behind the diesel engine? Could his mysterious disappearance in 1913 from an overnight passenger ferry from Belgium to England been a suicide or a well-orchestrated murder? Prepare to be gripped as our guest, Douglas  Brunt, takes us through the riveting journey of Diesel's life, his revolutionary invention, and the shadowy circumstances surrounding his death. 


Support the show

Make sure to check out Jason on IG @drjasonpiccolo


Speaker 1:

Hey, one thing we do is we always hit that record button. Welcome to the Protectors Podcast. Excellent guest today and an excellent co-host. First I have to give Emma Adair the kudos for coming back on a show. Every time we have the New York Times bestselling authors on, or just high class authors, just really all the authors, because all the authors are great We've had on Emma welcome, and then Doug Brun.

Speaker 2:

Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Doug welcome to the show, Thanks so much for having me. This is great. I love having authors on, I love talking about it, especially now that I'm jumping into the real rating world. Listen, I love nonfiction, I love fiction. I love everything. I love coming up with the ideas and speaking to people who have done it and have multiple really mainstream books out there. It's kind of exciting.

Speaker 3:

I loved. As you know, we were just talking about it offline, I have a show talking to authors too. Every conversation is different, it's dynamic. It's so interesting to hear how they come up with their ideas, how they execute on it. It's really really fun stuff.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, dedicated with Doug Brun. It's now on my playlist. And another thing Listen, there's a lot of original thoughts out there, but yours is pretty cool. It's like you have a drink. You have a drink for each author and you're like, okay, this is the drink they have. Everybody kind of has a unique spin on conversations and interviews. So I'm really excited to check out your podcast because, hey, you know what I like to learn from other people. That's the same thing when we talk to authors. All of us like to learn from other people, from their experiences and their techniques.

Speaker 3:

True, and I have to say the starting off the show with the guest favorite drink is helpful. It's a nice lubricant. We had Jack Carr on and he was. We were just drinking bourbon on the rocks and by the end of the show we were. You know, we'd gone back for seconds and thirds, so we were getting into it by the end of the show.

Speaker 1:

I can only imagine. You know, I stopped drinking on the show a long time ago because of that. I'm like whoa, I don't know what I'm going to say. There's going to be like some state secrets flowing out of here, especially with Aiman. We both be like oh you know, there's this top secret. I'm just kidding.

Speaker 3:

We'll have to have to redact those episodes a little bit.

Speaker 1:

Exactly, doug. We're here to talk about a lot of things, and one of them is your new book, the Mysterious Case of Rudolph Diesel. And right before we hit the record button, you're like oh, you know, there's a lot of espionage and mystery about it. What is the premise? I like it coming from the investigative realm of, like, you know these books, but what's the premise of the book?

Speaker 3:

Well, I'll take it to the very beginning. In September 29, 1913, rudolph Diesel is traveling from Belgium to England on an overnight passenger ferry across the North Sea. And at this time, unlike today, his name has really been erased from history and as you find out the reasons why in the book, deliberately erased. But at the time, in 1913, just before World War I, he's an international celebrity. The diesel engine which he invented often misspelled with a lowercase did because nobody knows there was a Rudolph diesel was taking over as the dominant power source for inland use. For rail they used to use steam engines, shoveling wood or coal into this furnace to boil water, to drive a steam engine to drive a train crazy, rudimentary technology. But it also had taken over as the only option for the submarine. Kerosene and gasoline engines did not work for the submarine. So there would be no U-boat or submarine warfare in World War I, but for diesel for World War II. So he's traveling across the North Sea and he disappears in the middle of the night. They get up in the morning. He's supposed to have breakfast with his traveling companions at 6 am on the overnight passenger ferry and he's gone. They stopped the ship at sea. They search it. All they can find is his hat and his coat folded at the stern of the ship by the rail on the promenade deck, and he's gone. So then this mystery explodes. It's the front page headline of newspapers from the United States all through Western Europe to Russia about what happened to diesel, and the prevailing theories at the time are maybe suicide. It seemed to mark where he might have jumped off the ship. But there are also two murder suspects identified. One is Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, and the other is John Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and at that time the richest man in the world. And the reason people are speculating Kaiser Wilhelm may have done it or sent agents to do it, of course is what I already identified. The submarine was an increasingly important weapon at that time and there was an Anglo-German naval arms race happening, which was one of the main reasons we got into World War I to begin with, this competition between the two, and everybody was scrambling for diesel expertise and Rudolph Diesel, because the engine was still so young he had just released it in 1897 and was still getting figured out, especially for the exacting requirements of undersea use. He was still the man. You still needed, rudolph, to kind of get your submarine program going. And then the armies and the navies of every major power were looking for his help. The other reason was diesel. Imagined that the engine would never run on petroleum. That Rockefeller was pulling out of the ground. His idea was that it could run on vegetable or nut oil and he won the 1900 Paris World's Fair with a diesel engine running on peanut oil. So he was saying I can break the fuel monopolies. We don't need to live like this. We can either make coal tar from coal or we can just grow our own fuel. So his idea was that every nation in the world could produce its own fuel through farmers. And of course this was not good for Rockefeller. So there was speculation that the big oil trusts had sent maybe a quote unquote Pinkerton detective over there to knock him off. So that sets up the mystery and I follow events, you know I really sort of bring you up to speed, up to 1913, about how diesel managed the invention and what Wilhelm and Rockefeller were doing in that time and why the diesel engine became the center of the focus of his period of time.

Speaker 1:

You know, investigating something like this is, it's got to be interesting because, like when you said about what the world's perception of World War One and World War Two and like that whole era is really based at the macro level, unless you look at it like you know, you really dig deep into history, you're really not going to know what's going on. So when you brought up the diesel thing, I'm like I didn't know. There's a guy named Rudolph diesel that made the diesel engine. I'm like you know, because it's to me, it's like it's almost like ancient history. It's almost like diesel Cool, I know about it, big trucks etc. But when you start bringing up all the other intricacies of it, yeah, you can run on a peanut oil, you can do this, you can do that.

Speaker 3:

And it does pull into mystery in 2007. Willie Nelson ran his tour bus around America on recycled kitchen grease, basically vegetable.

Speaker 2:

I remember that.

Speaker 3:

We don't need to be running around fighting wars over fuel. We can grow our own fuel, which was always the vision of diesel, going back more than 120 years.

Speaker 1:

And then you think about an assassination assassination and you're like, ah, okay, this makes sense. And if you had no suicidal ideations before, it's like that's kind of interesting. So when you're putting this book together and it's a, it's an in depth book. You know, I'm just going by the amount of pages are in this book right now because I am going to read this. You know, I get a ton of books but I'm actually going to read this because of that, the investigative aspect of it. How do you dive into this?

Speaker 3:

And I had, you know, I had a lot of folks like you two who were former CIA, former FBI, as well as police detectives, examine my evidence in my case that I put forward. And so I was in archives around Europe and America delving through old documents from that time period, even doing, you know, those old microfiche newspaper searches with headlines, because now that stuff is pretty strong. Well, that stuff is pretty searchable. So there was a crazy three week period post the night of his disappearance where every reporter was on the beat, so it was every every British, american, german, french newspaper was following this. And then, you know, as you discover in the book, it sort of halted and then World War One came and just wiped everything else off the front page. But back in 1917 or 1920, it would be very hard to go back and investigate these. It would be very hard to find all these newspaper articles that had so many conflicting details. But there was, there were pieces of hard evidence in there. Much of that now has been scanned and because you can do a keyword search or search around this period, you can actually you know from your chair is a library level research go find all this stuff that's in newspaper archives that you can access online now and the investigation and more and more gets scanned and uploaded into online databases every day. So the investigation is much easier now than it was even 20 years ago to pull that piece of it together. But I was on the ground throughout Europe for a few years pulling all this together and former UK special forces folks looked at it who are in the intelligence community and and agree 100% with the conclusion of the book, because every other theory but the one I put forward has massive gaping holes in it. Even at the time in October 1913, you could look at this and say, clearly, it's not these other things which is what got me started on it. I had a theory of the case and I was able to put it together. All of that is just no, that's it.

Speaker 2:

It's fascinating to me. So the level of detail, just you even talking about having the close folded when he went missing, it paints a picture and it just draws you into that story. But then the level of detail you get into, because you said there were conflicting bits of detail how did you route through that and how did you decide what to use to create your narrative and to come up with your theory?

Speaker 3:

Well, in order to tell the book. It was a very complicated book to organize because it is part biography, it's part many biographies of the suspects. It's a true crime who done it? It's a primer on European diplomacy of turn of the century that got us into this World War I mess anyway which was the motive for many of the players involved, and it's sort of like a combustion engines for dummies too, Like you got to understand how the diesel engine works a little bit and why it matters and why the sources of fuel mattered and things like that. There were certain facts you could count on from archives and primary research that had been documented. And then it's sort of triangulating in on the events you could take to the bank based on different sources of information, and I actually was able to get into archives that had much of diesel's own writings, his letters, his diaries, all in German, much of it held either in the Deutsches Museum in Germany or in the Mann Museum, mann being Maschinen-Fabrik Augsburg, nuremberg, which was his partner company back in the 1890s to develop the engine, which still exists today and is still one of the main diesel manufacturers today, and they have a whole museum with much of his stuff. And so I actually contacted my old high school, a buddy who's working in the English department there. He put me in touch with the guy who runs the German language department and he translated all these reams of material that were just gold. I mean, it's like the geeky side of Indiana Jones, you know, the bookish one. But when you find something that if someone else came across it it would be, oh well, that's kind of cool but meaningless to me. But in the context of this story you'll be like wait, winston Churchill said what Days after diesel said this and certain things. It's just, you find it in the context of what you're putting together as an investigator. It's gold. So those were really fun moments in the period of years of doing the research.

Speaker 1:

Well, you brought up a great word, one of my favorite ones investigation. Now, what is your background? I mean to put this together like to me, like if I'm gonna run a case or a back one, that I used to actually work and do cases but I would do like a kind of like a timeline. Okay, this is when this happened. This happened, this happened and this is kind of where I wanna go with the case. What's your background? Where you learn how to do Kind of you're basically an investigator. You're almost like a investigator reporting on history.

Speaker 3:

Well, I'm not naturally or maybe I'm naturally an investigator, but I'm not professionally an investigator and have not been prior to this. But I am professionally a writer and have always done tons of research for my fiction. So this is my first nonfiction book for listeners. It's a narrative nonfiction in the style of like an Eric Larson or a David Gran. My fiction has always been deeply researched though, with lots of interviews, primary sources as well as some secondary research, and so I've always loved that piece. I think it helps my fiction when I'm telling a story, and if I've deeply researched it, I can bring it to the page with more force and credibility, and I've always loved the research piece of it and the way this book got started. I bought a boat years ago, seven years ago, and it was a bigger boat but it had these two gasoline engines in it. And I was talking to the guy you know what? I'm gonna fix the boat up. It was old and needed some work. And the guy said well, you know, the first thing you should do is repower this boat with diesel engines. And I, seven years ago, was like most people are today why diesel? Why is that different from gas? I don't understand. I thought it was just a combustion engine. What's the difference and he goes through this list of reasons which is, you know, on a 200 gallon tank you'll get two, three times the range. Diesel is much more efficient. 100% of boat fires come from gasoline engines. Zero from diesel. It's not flammable, the fuel under normal conditions and there are no fumes. Gasoline is very fume-y fuel, diesel is not. There are no fumes. So I was like, well, this all sounds great. So I repowered the boat with diesel and then, a few years later, was going through ideas for a new novel. I was kind of in between books Now, just tinkering around online looking at cool things. Hopefully, you know, something might stick or inspire me to do something. And I came across this list of mysterious disappearances at sea and on the list was Rudolph Diesel 1913, this story I mentioned to you to open the book and I was like even now I was like, oh, I wonder if this is connected to my diesel engines. You know, like still not knowing and of course took a deep dive and then didn't come out of the rabbit hole for five years until the book was done, but had an early theory of what might have been. It's almost like you know, when you look at those paintings that are all dots and then like, if you stare at it for long enough, it turns into like a mermaid or whatever is in there. It was like that I just had read about this, just being curious and fascinated by it, and then suddenly, like the dots showed up, I'm like this must be what happened. Nothing else makes sense. And the more I got into it and found little pieces of information, everything supported that. And, as you guys know, like murder, cases are almost always solved on circumstantial evidence. You know it's rare to say to have some eyewitness that said I saw the knife go in. Here's how it happened. And, by the way, eyewitness testimony is Some of the least reliable stuff out there. It's generally the circumstantial stuff that does it. So it's a circumstantial case when it's rock solid.

Speaker 2:

Just say I love that you use multiple sources. Through this I, like, I completely understand where you're coming from when you kind of you get the thread of something fascinating and you just can't let go of it and you just keep pulling and pulling, and pulling. But the fact that you didn't Just take the surface level and went a little bit deeper is outstanding, because you're absolutely right, diesel is a term that we throw out every single day, but no one ever thinks about where it came from or what the history of that was. Until I read the title of your book Zero clue of who invented the diesel engine and why that was, you know, important or what it could have been.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, yeah. And if you think about its prevalence even today, like, imagine a pineapple grown in some tropical region, all the heavy farm equipment used to to Grow the pineapple is on diesel and then gets loaded on a truck to go down to port Anything larger than a passenger car is diesel. A crane puts it on the ship, the crane is diesel, the ship, the 100% of cargo ships that take things around the world. Diesel goes across the ocean, goes into port, unloaded on a truck onto a train all trains are diesel and then it goes to some refrigeration plant. You know many of the Power plants of power for duration, electricity are diesel and nothing is happening, even today, without diesel. There's some stat of you know global, it's like kilo Ton miles or something like that that the amount of goods that are shipped over a number of miles per year or something, and you know many trillions, and 99.9% of it gets there by diesel. A very small fraction is the steep, the turbine engines of jets, but diesel powers the global economy. There's, the global economy would not exist, as it says, without, without diesel, and that's that's present day. And the fundamental Technology of the engine. Engine is the same as what Rudolph put out in 1897.

Speaker 1:

Enhancements of course, but it's basically the same now backtrack and you think about the automobile and then you think, okay, why not get rid of someone? Is going to knock out really a trillion dollar, eventually going to be a trillion trillions a dollar business. So this guy was like kind of like hey, you know what, if we don't, it's almost like getting rid of Elon Musk. You never know what he's gonna do next. Back then it was like where's diesel gonna go next? Some must have been like you know what, when you're, when you start messing with people's pocketbooks, yeah, you know and if you go back to 1913, it was not at all settled what the fuel was gonna be.

Speaker 3:

In 1905 New York City had a huge taxi cab fleet I several thousand cars, all electric. There was a charging station for electric cars for New York taxi fleet on Broadway in Times Square. And then they had trouble. You know, edison was trying to figure out the battery for the electric car. Ford even made an attempt, in Partnership with Edison, to build an electric car. The battery technology was was a little difficult so that didn't come through. But having an electric car or engines running on vegetable or or peanut oil Were very much in play and standard oil was really on the ropes. Because all that money, standard oil. You know, in 1900 and 1905 Rockefeller's the richest man in the world. All the money he'd made was on kerosene. They were, they were in the illumination business and Then the electric light bulb came along and wiped that away and he was scrambling. He needed the combustion engine and the automobile to take off in order to survive into the 20th century. So they were. It was a very shaky time for Rockefeller and standard oil and it was not at all settled that petroleum was going to be the way forward. So he was. He was a bit like a cornered animal when the Edison light bulb came along.

Speaker 1:

When you bring up you know this whole story and doing your research about it and knowing about it and looking at the old newspaper clippings and microphesies and everything, it kind of makes you wonder like it's really a call for real investigative journalism Because, like in our future, you know, in the future of my kids future and yours and everything, what are they gonna research back and is they're gonna be like really solid Investigative reporting going out there? So it's like critical that if something does happen, that there's good records and not just you know you need people who have that critical eye, who can dig up information and Hint then also have solid and reliable information.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, it's true this is slightly off topic, but I think the decline of local news is scary in that regard, because they were our consumer watchdog things. You'd see John Stossel or Arnold Diaz out there doing those consumer watchdog-y segments and that was the purview of local news in some ways. Now the internet opens up new ways for that sort of thing to happen, but to your point, it needs to happen.

Speaker 1:

You've got to collect that information, right.

Speaker 2:

Well, not just that but the timing that you have of this. It kind of lends itself to the character. But there's some comparisons to this book about it being a little bit Sherlock Holmes-like, with that kind of investigative and the deductive reasoning and observational discovery. That's a hell of a comparison.

Speaker 3:

I love that review. Equal parts Walter Isaacson and Sherlock Holmes. That's exactly what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping that the reader will take away.

Speaker 2:

I would be framing that one if that were me.

Speaker 3:

The other piece of it, along with that, is the era. It's this late gilded age I refer to it sometimes as Downton Abbey, the early seasons prior to World War I and the cast of characters in the book really is phenomenal. You get to the point where you're reading it you start forgetting that you're reading nonfiction. The way the licensing schemes would work back then is someone would acquire the exclusive rights to market and manufacture the diesel engine for a national territory In North America. It was Adolphus Bush, the founder of Anheuser Bush. He acquired the diesel engine initially to provide the power to pump water in his breweries and energy for refrigeration. He also developed a side business that was developing diesel engines for the US Navy for their submarine fleet In Russia. It was the Nobel family. It is the same Nobel family as Alfred Nobel. This is another fascinating story that you can. This is like another five-year rabbit hole to go down. The Nobel family founded the Russian oil business at the turn of the century. Alfred Nobel was slightly involved, but it was the two older brothers who developed Russian oil and also had a munitions manufacturing business. They took the exclusive license for diesel in Russia and built diesels for the Russian Navy. The cast of characters is just so far and wide. Churchill plays a big role, of course. Kaiser Wilhelm and his grand admiral Terpitz plays an enormous role. Rockefeller, as we've discussed. Edison, diesel and Edison have this phenomenal meeting when diesel comes to America in 1912. His notes from his diary are just hilarious about it. In some ways, in a way they clashed more than got along. His observations about Edison and also of America at that time are fascinating because he comes over with this very scientific engineering point of view. He was also a humanitarian type and slightly a poetic guy. I think in that era in particular, engineers felt a dual role to be both a scientist and a social theorist. He has really, really fascinating observations about a turn of the century in America from a European's take on things.

Speaker 1:

Talk about a cast of characters. History is starting to come back and you have Oppenheimer. It just came out, oppenheimer. Now you have this who, who, who. It's like a real cast of characters. It's a real everything. It's almost like the who done it of who back then. We're all about the same ages A little bit. Amy is a little younger, I'm a little younger, older, I don't know. Anyway, those names, I don't think they've ever been accused of being the younger. When you bring up the Rockefellers and everybody, a lot of people don't realize how very important they were back then and how significant they were. This is really cool, man.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, Something like Rockefeller had the power to shape wars, influence wars, start and stop wars. It was incredible. If you look at their net worth, just doing the inflation calculation doesn't quite capture it. If you compare it to the money supply, there are other metrics a little bit more accurate to capture his financial influence at the time. If you just do it by inflation, then Musk is wealthier per his time. But if you do the more accurate measures as a percentage of money applies, a percentage of GDP, Rockefeller is a multiple of Elon Musk's wealth today. It's extraordinary the power he and a handful of others had at that time.

Speaker 2:

We often talk about setting being a key factor in stories, and you couldn't have picked a better one. I mean, there is that bit of a romanticism around it, but that era, you're right, it's like a crossroads of world history and that in itself is going to draw people to the book. You add in actual history and a little bit of true crime, and this has to be like catnip for multiple genres, just to come and latch on to this.

Speaker 3:

It was certainly catnip for me. It kept me fascinated for five years and I kind of miss working on it. You know, diesel's like my imaginary friend. I tell my family I'm going to go hang out with Rudolph for a little while. But you're right about the era that, and Dalton Abbey does capture that sort of hinge of history of what World War I meant to the world. Because prior to World War I, all of Europe, really lived in a different way, more feudal, not better or worse, you might say. It's slightly more romantic all these sort of courts of Europe, the monarchies of Europe. But think about the number of empires and monarchs that went away before and after that war. The Russian Empire goes and we've got the Bolsheviks. The German Empire goes, the Austria-Hungary Empire goes, the Ottoman Empire goes. All of these things turn into then Turkey with a prime minister, and Germany with the Weimar Republic and Austria, you know, split into a number of things. So Europe lives in a totally different way and that trickled down in a way to how ordinary citizens lived as well.

Speaker 1:

I'm ready to read it.

Speaker 2:

The one thing that we're going to have to see when we read this book, and I'm sure everybody's just dying to get into it. You know, thriller authors in particular are accused of being too hard to hide plot points from, and so I'll be really interested if you know I can pick up your breadcrumbs before you actually give me the who done it.

Speaker 3:

I think you will be astonished, Even with your the investigative talents you two have. You might have an inclination as you get close to it, but I think even the thriller writers who have read it, like Brad Thor and Lee Child and others, were really astonished with how it wraps up, but then also entirely persuaded that there was no other way.

Speaker 2:

That's a major accolade right there, if you got Brad Thor and Lee. Child to read that and be like okay, yeah, no, no, this is, this is good Then. Bravo sir.

Speaker 3:

Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Well, doug, I appreciate you coming on and talking about the book. Everybody in the book is the mysterious case of Rudolph Diesel. I should put my author in. Like you know, the mysterious case of Rudolph Diesel on it.

Speaker 3:

Oh, that was good.

Speaker 1:

I know I might have to, you know, read these books sometime, like actually on air 19 September.

Speaker 2:

That's the release date.

Speaker 3:

September 19, pub days, yeah.

Speaker 2:

All right, september 19.

Speaker 1:

I will have you know what we're going to. I'm going to read it. I might have to send this one out to AIMA, but I love. My goal now is to read the books after I do the interview and then do like a real review. You know, because so many authors out there they do. They write the books, people read them but they don't get like. You need to review the books you know, tell people what you know, what you like about it.

Speaker 3:

Yeah Well, round back with me. I'm dying to know what you think.

Speaker 1:

Oh, I will believe me. And, doug, I appreciate you coming on the show. I want to have you back on because there was a couple of things I wanted to get to today but kind of press for time, like to keep it around 30 minutes or so. But one thing I do want to talk to you next time you come on if you can come on again is your writing technique. I want to know how you went from the fiction to the nonfiction world and kind of your research process. Everybody's so different in like the how you, how you spend time with like Rudolph Diesel to get these books on there.

Speaker 3:

Yeah Well, the research piece was the bridge between the fiction and nonfiction, and just the love of telling a good story, and I think in this case, with these, I just stumbled across the greatest story of the 20th century and I hope I've done justice to it. But the research was also a, you know, a labor of passion, whatever you call that. I loved every minute of it.

Speaker 2:

Well, you went from, you know, talking Wall Street to political campaigns, to tennis, of course, about pushing your kids, and now this I mean every story you have is compelling in its own right. So bravo for your choices. To be able to do that in nonfiction, that in itself I can't applaud that enough. To get anybody to get excited about a nonfiction book, it can be a little difficult.

Speaker 3:

Oh, thanks. One of the writers I admire most, who we lost too early, is Michael Crichton, and one of the reasons I admired him so much is his range of work. He did everything from Jurassic Park and he's always been the zeitgeist. You know, he did Jurassic Park when chaos theory was being discussed and he did Rising Sun when Japanese business taking over, the need of being discussed and disclosure was sort of early in the workplace harassment thing, and so he just took on so many different topics and he's a star on the TV side, so he just did different stuff, did it all really well, and so I've always admired that, and my approach has been similar in the sense that I want to take on things that I think have relevance today, that are also fascinating and draw me in.

Speaker 2:

I will be eagerly following your career, sir. Thank you so much.

Speaker 3:

Thank you, thank you.

The Mysterious Case of Rudolph Diesel
Investigation of Rudolph Diesel's Disappearance
The Mysterious Case of Rudolph Diesel
Writing Technique and Range of Topics