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Dr Nicolaus August Otto (10 June 1832, Holzhausen an der Haide, Nassau - 26 January 1891, Cologne) was the German inventor of the first internal-combustion engine to efficiently burn fuel directly in a piston chamber, the Otto gas engine.
Although numerous other types of internal combustion engines had been invented (e.g. by Étienne Lenoir) these were not based on four separate strokes. Though the concept of four strokes had been theorised in 1861 by Alphonse Beau de Rochas, and probably experimented upon by others, Otto's engine was commercially viable and successful.
Otto was the son of a farmer: his father also ran the local post office.
He served an apprenticeship in commerce and following his apprenticeship worked as a business man in Frankfurt am Main and in Cologne.
After relocating to Cologne he quit his office job in order to construct small gas engines, starting out by seeking to improve on the existing design of Étienne Lenoir.
Otto met engineer Eugen Langen in 1864. The technically trained Langen recognized the potential of Otto's development, and one month after the meeting, founded the first engine factory in the world, N. A. Otto & Cie.
At the 1867 Paris World Exhibition their improved engine was awarded the Grand Prize.
Otto married Anna Gossi and the couple produced seven recorded children. His son Gustav Otto grew up to become an aircraft builder.
The Otto engine was designed as a stationary engine, and in the action of the engine, the stroke is an upward or downward movement of a piston in a cylinder. Used later in an adapted form as an automotive engine, four strokes are involved:
(1) downward intake stroke — coal-gas and air enter the piston chamber,
(2) upward compression stroke — the piston compresses the mixture,
(3) downward power stroke - ignition of the fuel mixture by electric spark, and
(4) upward exhaust stroke - releases exhaust gas from the piston chamber.
Otto only sold his engine as a stationary motor.
According to recent historical studies, the Italian inventors Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci patented a first working efficient version of an internal combustion engine in 1854 in London (pt. Num. 1072). It is claimed that the Otto engine is in many parts at least inspired from this precedent invention, but, as yet there is no documentation of knowledge about the Italian engine by Otto.
Died 1891 aged 59.
1891 Obituary 
We regret to record the death, at Cologne, on January 26, of Dr. N. August Otto, the inventor of the Otto gas engine. He succumbed, after a brief illness.
His career exemplifies the success of perseverance and energy paired with skill and ingenuity. Luck often follows pluck, and a false start is not fatal. Mr. Otto started as a commercial traveller, for which duties his great mechanical skill was of little avail. Some circumstance turned his attention to gas engines, where his commercial capacity remained valuable.
In 1867 he, in conjunction with Eugen Langen, surprised the engineers who had flocked to the Paris Exhibition, with a real practical gas engine, an engine of the vertical type, with fly wheels on the top, not uncanny in appearance, but terribly noisy. The noise had to be borne, and was borne - for the new engine became very popular - for nine years, when the “Otto Silent” was presented. That engine has undergone such manifold improvements by the inventor and by Messrs. Crossley that startling innovations and perfections are hardly to be looked for.
The gas engine in its practical career has thus quickly attained maturity. Yet the early history of the gas engine has to go back more than 200 years. It is orthodox to quote Huyghens as the first in the field; the series of originators commences, therefore, with one of the best names of physical science. Among the papers of the great physicist is one dated 1640, on a "Novel Motive Force Derived from Gun-powder and Air. “ Papin took this idea up in 1688, one year after his classical experiment which initiated the steam engine; but he was not satisfied with the results. Fully a century later, Street reopened the researches by bringing out and patenting a motor cylinder with explosion by means of a torch. Many others followed, Lebon, Samuel Brown, Wright, Barnett, Newton, Barsanti and Matteucci, Million, and Lenoir and Hugon, who came very near producing a practical engine. But Langen and Otto's engine of 1867 was so decidedly superior in the economy of gas consumption that the Lenoir and Hugon engines were at once put out of the field.
Otto’s gas engine embraced the characteristic features of some of its predecessors - it is rarely otherwise in our days - the compression of Barnett, the cycle of Beau de Rochas, and the free piston and other advantages of Barsanti and Matteucci's engine, which was remarkable in many respects and effected ignition by means of the electric spark. But engineers remain indebted to Dr. Otto for supplying an engine which realised and did what others, who deserve all credit, had been aiming at.
We will not here contest the question of priority of invention. It has been fought out many a time; and we believe that no one will grudge Dr. Otto the benefits and comfort which his work and exertions brought him. He was an honourable man, esteemed by all who knew him, and his invention was not a lucky hit. He was not trained as an engineer, but he made himself one by hard work and study; and his achievements prove his great theoretical knowledge, mechanical dexterity, and fertility of resources.