[N&W] Re: Steam to Diesel

nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue May 4 22:31:22 EDT 2004

Gary Rolih writes:

One other thought about the conversion of steam to diesel.

There was no real, viable source for diesel engines in the US in
the teen's.  After WWI, the US Navy purchased diesel engines from
the German manufactures- a couple of sources, MAN was one, I forget
the other- to be used in specially built, demonstrator submarines
sized to fit these engines.  The German engines were far superior
to the crude gasoline type engines used by the Allies.  Naturally,
there was congressional reluctance to fund a war making machine right
after the-war-to-end-all-wars.  Never the less , the test subs were
built and tested.  The designs were also purchased by the Navy to
allow the transfer of technology to a US company willing to build
engines for the Navy and establish their own US market and marine
propulsion market. (Scaling up and down to get the appropriate
horsepower is NOT easy; so this exercise had little impact on the
railroad engine builders.) This exercise did not catch on very well
although the submarines were reasonably successful. There just wasn't
sufficient market to justify tooling up for diesels.

One has to wonder about this chicken-and-egg question, if the diesel
market in the US was small to non-existent, what was the availability
of diesel fuel?  Gasoline was extremely crude in those days with a quite
low octane rating.  It wasn't until the big push for speed racing in
airplanes that the studies into gasoline anti-knock compounds brought
about the knowledge about tetraethyl lead and how to fractionalized the
crude oil at the refinery.  This was in the late twenties and early

Diesel and home heating oil are very similar, as is JP-4 jet fuel.
( Jet A is close to kerosene.)  Kerosene was widely distributed for
cooking and lighting purposes in the twenties.  But no one had a fuel
oil furnace.. everybody used coal.

What were the oil refineries making in the thirties?  What were they
capable of making at the refinery- knowledge about catalysts is very
important.  Did this knowledge exist then?

If a railroad went to diesel locomotives, what did they find was necessary
to get the refineries to make diesel oil in sufficient volume?  What about
the distribution of the diesel fuel?  Did it only come from California
refineries and Pacific crude? Only from Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania crude?

Certainly the use of diesels in US Navy ships and subs put the US diesel
business on the map in a big way in W.W.II.  But, it had to solidify the
market for diesel oil in the same way!  And we can't forget that the vast
majority of the oil used by the Western Allies in W.W.II came from US oil
fields.  After the war, the oil companies must have made every effort to
push their fantastic manufacturing capacity into commercial markets.  I'll
bet the price of diesel fuel offered to the railroads in 1945 or 1946 was
much lower than the price in 1940!!  It might have been lower than the cost
of production to "buy" a market. 

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