David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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The trouble with visionaries

It is our responsibility to think constantly about what we are doing for our present and our future, but that's no small feat (Behaalotcha)
Thomas Edison in the Library of his West Orange Laboratory with Dr. Rudolf Diesel. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Thomas Edison in the Library of his West Orange Laboratory with Dr. Rudolf Diesel. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Cities in the second half of the 19th century ran on horsepower. Horses carried crops to market, brought raw materials for manufacturing, pulled the trolley cars and dragged the firefighter’s pumps. Horses powered the industrial revolution. By 1870, there were more than 300 US patents issued for horse-powered machinery.

But a 1,000-pound horse creates about 31 pounds of feces and nearly two and a half gallons of urine each day. By the end of the 19th century, New York’s 100,000 horses produced about 2.5 million pounds of manure each day. The stench and squelch must have been overwhelming. The streets would have been an enormous petri dish for cultivating and spreading disease.

Unfortunately, in 1872, the reliance on horses and easy spread of disease came together in a massive outbreak of equine flu. In late September, a few horses near Toronto fell sick. Within days, most of the horses in the city were infected. Within a month it was spreading throughout the USA.

Medicine of the time knew of no cure, doctors did not know what viruses were. Horses developed a rasping cough and fever, staggered and collapsed. Some 70,000 of America’s seven million horses died and so many more were sick and unable to work for weeks. The economy ground to a halt.

Deliveries were not delivered, commuters couldn’t commute, perishables perished.

Even though eventually most of the horses recovered, humans realized they could not rely on them to power their modern economy. People understood that the internal combustion engine, for all its unreliability and constraints, was going to be more useful in the long term than a horse.

Rudolph Diesel was born on March 18, 1858, in Paris to German immigrants. So, he was 14 when the American horses were dying in droves. But his design was eventually to mark the end of the horse powered era.

Rudolf Diesel. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

When Diesel was 12, his parents moved to London, but Rudolf was sent to Bavaria to study in the school where his uncle taught mathematics.

He had a knack for engineering and by 1883, when he got married, he had several patents for refrigeration technology. By 1890 he was working on a steam-powered refrigeration prototype when it exploded nearly killing him.

He realized that steam was not the way forward, and turned his attention to combustion engines. In 1893, he published a paper entitled, “Theory and Design of a Rational Thermal Engine To Replace the Steam Engine and the Combustion Engines Known Today.”

By 1896, Diesel had built an engine that converted 25% of the fuel into energy. He had been aiming for 100% energy efficiency, so was disappointed. But even this first version of his engine was a huge improvement on steam power, which was only 10% energy efficient. Today, the diesel engine has the highest engine efficiency of any practical combustion engine, reaching up to 55% efficiency.

Diesel patented his design in many countries. Despite criticism and attacks on Diesel and his design, nobody could produce a more efficient engine.

An early diesel engine designed by Rudolf Diesel. (CC BY-SA, Vitold Muratov / Wikimedia Comomns)

Nowadays we associate diesel with the petroleum fuel purchased at the gas station. But Diesel envisaged a world that would not be dependent on expensive, polluting oil. At the 1900 World’s Fair, he demonstrated his engines running on peanut oil.

Diesel was concerned about depleting the world’s natural resources. He hoped his invention would prevent dependence on oil and coal, which he feared would soon run out.

Imagine what the world would look like today if the world economy was not petrol driven but peanut based. Instead of oil-rich countries having outsized political clout, it would have been the countries with legume fields that wielded the power. And instead of polluting the atmosphere with toxic emissions, the roads would smell like a chip shop. True, nations would have been using land to power their cars instead of to feed their population, but overall, it seems like a much better alternative to the world we live in now.

Diesel also hoped his invention would improve the economic situation of the poor. Maintaining a horse (or a steam-driven machine) was prohibitively expensive and unreliable. He foresaw small industry, that would never be able to afford a steam-powered factory, flourishing with his engine.

He also understood that his engine would allow people to leave the crowded, polluted, disease-ridden cities and move out to the countryside. The diesel engine would allow them to travel further and thereby achieve a higher standard of living. He claimed that his invention had “solved the social question.” In 1903, Diesel published a small book in German entitled, “Solidarity: The Rational Economic Salvation of Mankind.”

Diesel wrote, “That I have invented the diesel engine is well and good but my chief accomplishment is to have solved the social problem.”

Not only did the book sell only a few copies, but reviewers savaged it as “without scientific merit” and a “solitary dream.”

It is very difficult to be a visionary and to dream of a different future. Diesel spent a lot of time thinking he was a failure. In 1888 he stood on a Paris bridge debating whether or not to commit suicide. He wanted to change the world, but feared he would never accomplish anything worthwhile.

At the same time, other inventors challenged his patents, claiming that his engine was stolen from others (it wasn’t) or ridiculing it and claiming it would never work.

In 1899, Diesel suffered a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized for months. When he recovered, he feared he would not be able to continue his work, so turned over the development and licensing rights of his invention to the newly created Allgemeine Gesellschaft fur Dieselmotoren, giving up direct control of his engine. He had stocks in this new company, but they did not provide much for him.

The company rushed engines to market before they were fully tested, resulting in the machines being returned due to mechanical problems or failures. Branches of the company went bankrupt.

Diesel was under enormous financial and emotional stress. He was a visionary, but his vision seemed to be falling apart.

And with the world on the brink of World War I, his utopian future seemed further away than ever.

In September 1913, Diesel boarded a ship headed to London. He was scheduled to lay the groundwork for a new diesel engine plant, and meet with the Royal Navy to discuss installing diesel engines in their submarines.

Before he left, he gave his wife a suitcase filled with cash and boarded the steamship S.S. Dresden in Belgium. After dinner, he asked the crew to wake him at 6:00 the next morning.

When they went to wake him, on September 29, they found his clothes neatly laid out but his bed had not been slept in. They searched the entire ship but found no trace of him. When they looked in his diary, they found a small cross penciled in on that day’s date.

Ten days later, a Dutch tug boat found his decomposing corpse floating in the North Sea. They recovered his wallet and some other personal effects but left his body in the water.

Japanese rock garden in Wittelsbacher Park Augsburg, Bavaria. (CC BY-SA, LarsEvers/ Wikimedia Commons)

Investigators found that he was almost broke and had large interest payments due a few days later. The New York Times headline on October 15 read, ““DIESEL WAS BANKRUPT: He Owed $375,000 — Tangible Assets Only About $10,000.”

That, coupled with his depression was enough for the coroner to rule his death suicide, despite the lack of autopsy.

Within months, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Some said Diesel had faked his death and escaped to Canada. Another theory was that the German military had killed him to prevent him selling his secrets to the British. “An Inventor Thrown Overboard to Stop Selling Patents to the British Government,” read one headline. Others thought the oil consortium had plotted his death, to prevent him popularizing peanut powered engines. “Murdered by agents from big oil trusts,” was the headline in another newspaper.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to fully see the success of his invention. But the diesel engine revolutionized the world.

According to Tim Harford, “the first diesel-powered trucks appeared in the 1920s, trains in the 1930s. By 1939 a quarter of global sea trade was fueled by diesel.”

Today, 85% of commercial vehicles run on diesel engines and they deliver the majority of commercial products around the world.

Diesel’s invention is essential for the global economy which allows small businesses to provide products internationally.

And as for reliance on horses: it is estimated that 8 million horses were used in World War I. Two decades later, in World War II the vast majority had been replaced by diesel-powered transportation.

Diesel and his invention changed the world. But he was too far ahead of his time and unable to realize his vision.

In this week’s Torah portion of Behaalotecha we learn of two visionaries who were also ahead of their time. Their names were Eldad and Meidad.

Moses complained to God that he could not lead the nation alone. So he was instructed to take 70 elders to rule alongside him. Which means that six men from each of the 12 tribes were selected, but two were not part of the 70.

In Numbers 11:26 the Torah states:

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second Meidad. The spirit rested upon them because they were on the list, but they did not go to the Tent of Meeting. They prophesied in the camp.

Imagine prophets walking along the people, inspired with the Divine spirit.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) gives three opinions about what they foretold. One opinion is that they warned that Moses would die and Joshua would lead the Israelites into Israel. Another view is that they warned about the quail that would provide meat for the nation but would also cause divine wrath at those who rejected manna. The third opinion is that they warned about Armageddon.

According to each of the opinions, Eldad and Meidad warned the nation to prepare for a future where things would not be as safe and protected. They were urging the people to get themselves ready before it was too late. To think of the consequences of their actions now to avoid tragedy in the future.

But not everyone was happy with this message. In the next verses (Numbers 11:27-28) it says:

The youth ran and told Moses saying, ‘Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp.’ Joshua bin Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his youths, answered, ‘My master Moses, destroy them.’

They wanted to quash alarmist fears of the future. They wanted to pretend everything was fine. Nothing to worry about. Joshua wanted them permanently silenced. They thought these prophesies were a threat to their leadership and their success.

Only Moses understood the importance of thinking about the future and working to make the situation better. He wasn’t invested personally in his role but cared about the future of the entire nation. In verse 29 the Torah says:

Moses said to him [Joshua], ‘Are you jealous on my behalf? If only all the people of God were prophets and God would put His spirit upon them.’

Through their prophesy, Eldad and Meidad were warning of the temporary nature of Moses’s leadership. They said that the fleeting present is not going to work in the future. Moses was not insulted, even though they were undermining his legacy. Moses has the humility to recognize that his role, like everything else, was only for a short while. Without planning and preparing for the next day, year or millennium, there would be no sustainable future for the Israelites.

We never find out what happened to Eldad and Meidad. How was their message received by the broader populace? Were they effectively silenced to avoid dissent? Did they have other messages?

What I learn from the life of Diesel and the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad is that we must constantly think about where we are going. How will environment, leadership and technology change in the future? How can we work to create a safer, sustainable world for ourselves, for our children, and for many generations beyond?

I also learn how difficult and depressing it can be to take that responsibility seriously. And to do so in a hostile and unflinching society.

Perhaps that is why the portion begins with instructions to light the menorah. That paragraph rightfully belongs much earlier, in Leviticus. But the message that we should create light in the darkness is one which is timeless.

My next series on WebYeshiva will begin on June 6 and is entitled “In Their Time: The Tannaim.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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