The Pyréolophore was probably 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...

. It was invented in the early 19th century in Chalon-sur-Saône
Chalon-sur-Saône is a commune in the Saône-et-Loire department in the region of Bourgogne in eastern France.It is a sub-prefecture of the department. It is the largest city in the department; however, the department capital is the smaller city of Mâcon....

, France, by the Niépce brothers: Nicéphore Niépce
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...

 (who went on to invent photography
Photography is the art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film...

) and his brother Claude
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...


In 1807 the brothers ran a prototype internal combustion engine, and on 20 July 1807 a patent was granted by Napoleon Bonaparte after it had successfully powered a boat upstream on the river Saone
The Saône is a river of eastern France. It is a right tributary of the River Rhône. Rising at Vioménil in the Vosges department, it joins the Rhône in Lyon....


The Pyréolophore ran on what were believed to be "controlled dust explosions" of various experimental fuels, although technically they were deflagrations
Deflagration is a term describing subsonic combustion that usually propagates through thermal conductivity; hot burning material heats the next layer of cold material and ignites it. Most "fire" found in daily life, from flames to explosions, is deflagration...

 (rapid burns). The fuels included mixtures of Lycopodium powder
Lycopodium powder
Lycopodium powder is a yellow-tan dust-like powder historically used as a flash powder. It is composed of the dry spores of clubmoss plants, various fern relatives principally in the genera Lycopodium and Diphasiastrum...

 (the spores of Lycopodium, or clubmoss
Lycopodium is a genus of clubmosses, also known as ground pines or creeping cedar, in the family Lycopodiaceae, a family of fern-allies...

), finely crushed coal dust, and resin.

Operating independently, the Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz
François Isaac de Rivaz
François Isaac de Rivaz was a French politician, chancellor, Deputé , entrepreneur and inventor. In retirement, as a Swiss citizen, circa 1807, he invented a hydrogen powered internal combustion engine with electric ignition...

 built the De Rivaz engine
De Rivaz engine
The de Rivaz engine was a pioneering reciprocating engine 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 and contained some features of modern engines including spark ignition and the use of...

, a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine in 1807. These practical engineering projects may have followed the 1680 theoretical design of an internal combustion engine by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens. The separate, virtually contemporaneous implementations of this design in different modes of transport means that the de Rivaz engine can be correctly described as the first use of an internal combustion engine in an automobile (1808), whilst the Pyréolophore was the first use of an internal combustion engine in a boat (1807).

Preliminary research

The Niépce brothers were living in Nice
Nice is the fifth most populous city in France, after Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse, with a population of 348,721 within its administrative limits on a land area of . The urban area of Nice extends beyond the administrative city limits with a population of more than 955,000 on an area of...

 when they began their project to create an engine based on the newly defined principle of hot air expanding during an explosion. The challenge was to find a way to harness the energy released in a series of explosions.

In 1806 the Niépce brothers had presented a paper on their research to the French National Commission of the Academy of Science . The Commission's verdict was:

Proof of concept

In 1807 the brothers constructed and ran a prototype internal combustion engine, and received a patent for 10 years from the Bureau of Arts and Trades in Paris. The patent was signed by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon I
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

 and dated 20 July 1807, the same year that Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz
François Isaac de Rivaz
François Isaac de Rivaz was a French politician, chancellor, Deputé , entrepreneur and inventor. In retirement, as a Swiss citizen, circa 1807, he invented a hydrogen powered internal combustion engine with electric ignition...

 constructed and ran a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine. It is not clear how much these practical engineering projects owe to the theoretical designs of 1680 by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens.

The Pyréolophore ran on controlled dust explosions of various experimental fuels, including various mixtures of finely crushed coal dust, Lycopodium powder, and resin. Isaac de Rivaz, meanwhile, was using a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.
To prove the utility of the Pyréolophore to the Patent Commission, the brothers installed it on a boat, which it powered upstream on the river Saone
The Saône is a river of eastern France. It is a right tributary of the River Rhône. Rising at Vioménil in the Vosges department, it joins the Rhône in Lyon....

. The total weight was 2000 lb (907.2 kg), fuel consumption was reported as "one hundred and twenty-five grains per minute" (about 8 gram or 0.282191696840896 oz per minute), and the performance was 12–13 explosions per minute. The boat was propelled forward as the Pyréolophore sucked in the river water at the front and then pumped it out towards the rear. Thus, the Commissioners concluded that "the machine proposed under the name Pyreolophore by Mm. Niépce is ingenious, that it may become very interesting by its physical and economical results, and deserves the approbation of the Commission."


The operation of the Pyréolophore was first described in a meeting at the Academy of Sciences on 15 December 1806. Lazare Carnot
Lazare Carnot
Lazare Nicolas Marguerite, Comte Carnot , the Organizer of Victory in the French Revolutionary Wars, was a French politician, engineer, and mathematician.-Education and early life:...

 noted that "there was a bright flash of the 'spores of lycopodium' inside their sealed copper machine... The Niépce brothers, by their own device and without using water, have managed to create a commotion (explosion) in a confined space which is so strong that the effects appear to be comparable to a steam engine
Steam engine
A steam engine is a heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid.Steam engines are external combustion engines, where the working fluid is separate from the combustion products. Non-combustion heat sources such as solar power, nuclear power or geothermal energy may be...

 or fire pump".

The Pyréolophore operated as a series of discrete burns at a frequency of about 12 per minute to power a boat. Power was delivered in pulses, each pulse forcing water from the engine's tail pipe set under the boat and pointing towards its stern. The boat was pushed forward at each pulse by the reactive force
Reaction (physics)
The third of Newton's laws of motion of classical mechanics states that forces always occur in pairs. Every action is accompanied by a reaction of equal magnitude but opposite direction. This principle is commonly known in the Latin language as actio et reactio. The attribution of which of the two...

 of the ejected mass of water.

A Pyréolophore engine consists of two principal interconnected chambers: an ignition
Ignition may refer to:*Making fire*CombustionEvents* Ignition , a Burning Man regional event held in Montreal, QuebecIn Media* Ignition , a top-down racing game for PC published in 1997...

 chamber and a combustion
Combustion or burning is the sequence of exothermic chemical reactions between a fuel and an oxidant accompanied by the production of heat and conversion of chemical species. The release of heat can result in the production of light in the form of either glowing or a flame...

 chamber. There is also a bellows
A bellows is a device for delivering pressurized air in a controlled quantity to a controlled location.Basically, a bellows is a deformable container which has an outlet nozzle. When the volume of the bellows is decreased, the air escapes through the outlet...

 for injecting air, a fuel dispenser, an ignition device, and a submerged exhaust pipe. There is a means of storing energy at each explosion in order to work the mechanism as it prepares itself for the next cycle.

A mechanically operated bellows injects a jet of air into the first chamber where ignition takes place. Mechanical timing lets fall a measured amount of powder fuel into the jet so that it is blown along and mixed with it. Under the control of the mechanical timing mechanism
Ignition timing
Ignition timing, in a spark ignition internal combustion engine , is the process of setting the angle relative to piston position and crankshaft angular velocity that a spark will occur in the combustion chamber near the end of the compression stroke...

 a smoldering fuse
Fuse (explosives)
In an explosive, pyrotechnic device or military munition, a fuse is the part of the device that initiates function. In common usage, the word fuse is used indiscriminately...

 is introduced to this fuel air jet at the precise moment it passes the fuse location. The fuse then withdraws behind a metal plate. The now burning ball of powder and air travels though a wide nozzle into the main combustion chamber where a fast, almost explosive, burn takes place. The whole system now being almost airtight, a build-up of pressure follows. The pressure acts against the column of water in the exhaust pipe and expels it from the system. As the flow of exhaust gas moves into the tail pipe, it moves a loose piston in the combustion chamber which extracts and stores sufficient power to work the machine's timing mechanisms. Energy from this piston is stored by lifting weights attached to a balance wheel. The return of this wheel to its lower position under the pull of the weights governs the timing for the next cycle by operating the belows, fuel dispenser, the fuse and valves at the correct points in the cycle. The tail pipe, being under the boat, fills with water ready for the next discharge. The fall of the timing piston also expels the exhaust gases via a pipe above the ignition chamber, which is closed off by a valve during the burn part of the cycle.

Further development

On 24 December 1807, the brothers reported to Lazare Carnot that they had developed a new, highly flammable fuel (powder) by mixing one part resin with nine parts of crushed coal dust.

In 1817 the brothers achieved another first by using a rudimentary fuel injection
Fuel injection
Fuel injection is a system for admitting fuel into an internal combustion engine. It has become the primary fuel delivery system used in automotive petrol engines, having almost completely replaced carburetors in the late 1980s....


Life in post-revolutionary France was very difficult and by 1817 there was insufficient progress to attract subsidy and investment, so the ten-year patent expired. Worried about losing control of the engine, Claude traveled first to Paris and then to England in an attempt to further the project. He received the patent consent of King George III
George III of the United Kingdom
George III was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of these two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death...

 on 23 December 1817. This was not the key to success. Over the next ten years, Claude remained in London, settled in Kew
Kew is a place in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in South West London. Kew is best known for being the location of the Royal Botanic Gardens, now a World Heritage Site, which includes Kew Palace...

 and descended into delirium
Delirium or acute confusional state is a common and severe neuropsychiatric syndrome with core features of acute onset and fluctuating course, attentional deficits and generalized severe disorganization of behavior...

, whereby he squandered much of the family fortune chasing inappropriate business opportunities for the Pyréolophore. Nicéphore, meanwhile, was also occupied with the task of inventing photography
History of photography
The first permanent photograph was an image produced in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.- Etymology :The word photography derives from the Greek words phōs light, and gráphein, to write...


In 1824, after the brothers had lost the project's momentum, the French physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot
Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot
Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot was a French military engineer who, in his 1824 Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, gave the first successful theoretical account of heat engines, now known as the Carnot cycle, thereby laying the foundations of the second law of thermodynamics...

 scientifically established the thermodynamic theory of idealized heat engines. This highlighted the flaw in the design of the Pyréolophore, whereby it needed a compression mechanism to increase the difference between the upper and lower working temperatures and potentially unlock sufficient power and efficiency.


To celebrate the bicentenary, the Paris Photographic Institute (Spéos) and the Niépce House Museum produced a 3D animation of the working machine in 2010. Manuel Bonnet and Jean-Louis Bruley of the École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers
École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers
Arts et Métiers ParisTech is the French leading engineering school in the fields of mechanics and industrialization.The school trained 85,000 engineers since its foundation in 1780 by the Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt....

 (ENSAM) created the video.

See also

  • Timeline of transportation technology
    Timeline of transportation technology
    -Antiquity:*Stone Age – Dugout canoes*3500 BC – Wheeled carts are invented in Mesopotamia*3500 BC – River boats are invented *3100 BC – Horses are tamed and used for transport Botai Egypt *2000 BC – Chariots built by Indo-Iranians...

  • History of the internal combustion engine
    History of the internal combustion engine
    Although various forms of internal combustion engines were developed before the 19th century, their use was hindered until the commercial drilling and production of petroleum began in the mid-1850s...

  • Timeline of heat engine technology
    Timeline of heat engine technology
    This Timeline of heat engine technology describes how heat engines have been known since antiquity but have been made into increasingly useful devices since the seventeenth century as a better understanding of the processes involved was gained...

External links

Gallery and archive at the Niépce House Museum

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