De Rivaz engine
The de Rivaz engine was a pioneering reciprocating engine
Reciprocating engine
A reciprocating engine, also often known as a piston engine, is a heat engine that uses one or more reciprocating pistons to convert pressure into a rotating motion. This article describes the common features of all types...

 designed and developed from 1804 by the Franco-Swiss inventor Isaac de Rivaz. The engine has a claim to be the world's first internal combustion engine
Internal combustion engine
The internal combustion engine is an engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer in a combustion chamber. In an internal combustion engine, the expansion of the high-temperature and high -pressure gases produced by combustion apply direct force to some component of the engine...

 and contained some features of modern engines including spark ignition
Spark plug
A spark plug is an electrical device that fits into the cylinder head of some internal combustion engines and ignites compressed fuels such as aerosol, gasoline, ethanol, and liquefied petroleum gas by means of an electric spark.Spark plugs have an insulated central electrode which is connected by...

 and the use of hydrogen gas as a fuel.

Starting with a stationary engine suitable to work a pump in 1804, de Rivaz progressed to a small experimental vehicle built in 1807, which was the first wheeled vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. In subsequent years de Rivaz developed his design, and in 1813 built a larger 6-meter long vehicle, weighing almost a ton.


Towards the end of the 18th century Isaac de Rivaz, a Franco-Swiss artillery officer and inventor, designed several successful steam powered carriage
History of steam road vehicles
The history of steam road vehicles describes the development of vehicles powered by a steam engine for use on land and independent of rails; whether for conventional road use, such as the steam car and steam waggon, or for agricultural or heavy haulage work, such as the traction engine.The first...

s, or charettes as he called them in the French language. His army experience with cannon
A cannon is any piece of artillery that uses gunpowder or other usually explosive-based propellents to launch a projectile. Cannon vary in caliber, range, mobility, rate of fire, angle of fire, and firepower; different forms of cannon combine and balance these attributes in varying degrees,...

 had led him to think about using an explosive charge to drive a piston instead of steam. In 1804 he began to experiment with explosions created inside a cylinder with a piston. His first designs were for a stationary engine to power a pump. The engine was powered by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases ignited to create an explosion within the cylinder and drive the piston out. The gas mixture was ignited by an electric spark in the same manner as a modern internal combustion engine
Internal combustion engine
The internal combustion engine is an engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer in a combustion chamber. In an internal combustion engine, the expansion of the high-temperature and high -pressure gases produced by combustion apply direct force to some component of the engine...

. In 1806 he moved on to apply the design to what became the worlds first internal combustion engine driven automobile.

In 1807 de Rivaz placed his experimental prototype engine in a carriage and used it to propel the vehicle a short distance. This was the first vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. On 30 January 1807 Isaac de Rivaz was granted patent No. 731 in Paris. A patent in the State of Valais
The Valais is one of the 26 cantons of Switzerland in the southwestern part of the country, around the valley of the Rhône from its headwaters to Lake Geneva, separating the Pennine Alps from the Bernese Alps. The canton is one of the drier parts of Switzerland in its central Rhône valley...

 (now Swiss) patent office also dates it to 1807.

Operating independently, the French brothers Nicéphore
Nicéphore Niépce
Nicéphore Niépce March 7, 1765 – July 5, 1833) was a French inventor, most noted as one of the inventors of photography and a pioneer in the field.He is most noted for producing the world's first known photograph in 1825...

 and Claude Niépce
Claude Niépce
Claude Félix Abel Niépce was a French inventor and the older brother of the more celebrated Nicéphore Niépce. Claude traveled to England to try to find a sponsor for their internal combustion engine and died there...

 built an internal combustion engine called the Pyreolophore
The Pyréolophore was probably the world's first internal combustion engine. It was invented in the early 19th century in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, by the Niépce brothers: Nicéphore Niépce and his brother Claude....

 in 1807, which they used to power a boat by the reaction from a pulsed water jet. The honour of whose design was the first internal combustion engine is still debated. The Niépce patent is dated 20 July 1807.


The de Rivaz engine had no timing mechanism and the introduction of the fuel mixture and ignition were all under manual control. The compressed hydrogen gas fuel was stored in a balloon connected by a pipe to the cylinder. Oxygen was supplied from the air by a separate air inlet. Manually operated valves allowed introduction of the gas and air at the correct point in the cycle. A lever worked by hand moved a secondary, opposed, piston. This evacuated the exhaust gases, sucked in a fresh mixture and closed the inlet and exhaust valves. A Volta cell was used to ignite the gas within the cylinder by pressing an external button that created an electric spark inside the cylinder.

The explosion drove the piston freely up the vertically mounted cylinder, storing the energy by lifting the heavy piston to an elevated position. The piston returned under its own weight and engaged a ratchet that connected the piston rod to a pulley
A pulley, also called a sheave or a drum, is a mechanism composed of a wheel on an axle or shaft that may have a groove between two flanges around its circumference. A rope, cable, belt, or chain usually runs over the wheel and inside the groove, if present...

. This pulley was in turn attached to a drum around which a rope was wound. The rope's other end was attached to a second drum on the charette's front wheels. The weight of the piston’s during its return down the cylinder was enough to turn the drums and move the charette. When the return stroke was over, the ratchet allowed the top drum to disconnect from the piston rod ready for the next powered lift of the piston.

Around 1985 the Giannada Automobile Museum produced two reconstructions of the charette, a model about 50 cm long and a larger working one about 2 meters long. The working model used air pressure to simulate the gas/chemical explosion. On one occasion this car moved about 100 meters in front of the museum as part of a demonstration.

Later vehicles

In 1813 de Rivaz built a much larger experimental vehicle he called the grand char mécanique. This was 6 meters long, equipped with wheels of two meters in diameter and weighed almost a ton. The cylinder was 1.5 meters long and the piston had a stroke of 97 cm. The explosive gas mixture used was now composed of about 2 liters of coal gas and 10 to 12 liters of air. In the Swiss town of Vevey
Vevey is a town in Switzerland in the canton Vaud, on the north shore of Lake Geneva, near Lausanne.It was the seat of the district of the same name until 2006, and is now part of the Riviera-Pays-d'Enhaut District...

the machine, was loaded with 700 pounds of stone and wood together with four men and ran for 26 meters on a slope of about 9% at a speed of 3 km/h. With each stroke of the piston, the vehicle moved ahead from four to six meters.

Few of his contemporaries took his work seriously. The French Academy of Sciences argued that the internal combustion engine would never rival the performance of the steam engine.
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