This is a video montage of the Otto engines running at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR), in Rollag, Minnesota. (2min 16sec, 320x240, 340kbit/s video)
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. By the late 19th century, engineering advances led to their widespread adoption in a variety of applications.
17th century: Christiaan Huygens designs gunpowder to drive water pumps, to supply 3000 cubic meters of water/day for the Versailles palace gardens, essentially creating the first idea of a rudimentary internal combustion piston engine.
1823: Samuel Brown patented the first internal combustion engine to be applied industrially. It was compressionless and based on what Hardenberg calls the "Leonardo cycle", which, as the name implies, was already out of date at that time.
Early internal combustion engines were used to power farm equipment similar to these models.
This internal combustion engine was an integral aspect of the patent for the first patented automobile, made by Karl Benz on January 29, 1886
1856: in Florence at Fonderia del Pignone (now Nuovo Pignone, later a subsidiary of General Electric), Pietro Benini realized a working prototype of the Italian engine supplying 5 HP. In subsequent years he developed more powerful engines—with one or two pistons—which served as steady power sources, replacing steam engines.
1857: Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci describe the principles of the free piston engine where the vacuum after the explosion allows atmospheric pressure to deliver the power stroke (British patent No 1625). Otto and Langen were the first to make a marketable engine based on this concept 10 years later.
1861 The earliest confirmed patent of the 4-cycle engine, by Alphonse Beau de Rochas. A year earlier, Christian Reithmann made an engine which may have been the same, but it's unknown since his patent wasn't clear on this point.
1862: German inventor Nikolaus Otto was the first to build and sell the engine. He designed an indirect-acting free-piston compressionless engine whose greater efficiency won the support of Eugen Langen and then most of the market, which at that time was mostly for small stationary engines fueled by lighting gas.
1865: Pierre Hugon started production of the Hugon engine, similar to the Lenoir engine, but with better economy, and more reliable flame ignition.
1867: Otto and Langen introduced their free piston engine at the Paris Exhibition. It had less than half the gas consumption of the Lenoir or Hugon engines.
1870: In Vienna, Siegfried Marcus put the first mobile gasoline engine on a handcart.
1872: In America George Brayton invented Brayton's Ready Motor and went into commercial production, this used constant pressure combustion, and was the first commercial liquid fuelled internal combustion engine.
1876: Nikolaus Otto, working with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, started the genesis of the four-cycle engine. The German courts, however, did not hold his patent to cover all in-cylinder compression engines or even the four-stroke cycle, and after this decision, in-cylinder compression became universal.
1878: Dugald Clerk designed the first two-stroke engine with in-cylinder compression. He patented it in England in 1881.
1879: Karl Benz, working independently, was granted a patent for his internal combustion engine, a reliable two-stroke gas engine, based on the same technology as De Rochas's design of the four-stroke engine. Later, Benz designed and built his own four-stroke engine that was used in his automobiles, which were developed in 1885, patented in 1886, and became the first automobiles in production.
1882: James Atkinson invented the Atkinson cycle engine. Atkinson’s engine had one power phase per revolution together with different intake and expansion volumes, potentially making it more efficient than the Otto cycle, but certainly avoiding Otto's patent.
1891: Herbert Akroyd Stuart built his oil engine, leasing rights to Hornsby of England to build them. They built the first cold-start compression-ignition engines. In 1892, they installed the first ones in a water pumping station. In the same year, an experimental higher-pressure version produced self-sustaining ignition through compression alone.
1896: Karl Benz invented the boxer engine, also known as the horizontally opposed engine, or the flat engine, in which the corresponding pistons reach top dead center at the same time, thus balancing each other in momentum.
1898: Fay Oliver Farwell designs the prototype of the line of Adams-Farwell automobiles, all to be powered with three or five cylinder rotary internal combustion engines.
1905 Alfred Buchi patents the turbocharger and starts producing the first examples.
1903-1906: The team of Armengaud and Lemale in France build a complete gas turbine engine. It uses three separate compressors driven by a single turbine. Limits on the turbine temperatures allow for only a 3:1 compression ratio, and the turbine is not based on a Parsons-like "fan", but a Pelton wheel-like arrangement. The engine is so inefficient, at about 3% thermal efficiency, that the work is abandoned.
1908: Hans Holzwarth starts work on extensive research on an "explosive cycle" gas turbine, based on the Otto cycle. This design burns fuel at a constant volume and is somewhat more efficient. By 1927, when the work ended, he has reached about 13% thermal efficiency.
1916: Auguste Rateau suggests using exhaust-powered compressors to improve high-altitude performance, the first example of the turbocharger.
1920: William Joseph Stern reports to the Royal Air Force that there is no future for the turbine engine in aircraft. He bases his argument on the extremely low efficiency of existing compressor designs. Due to Stern's eminence, his paper is so convincing there is little official interest in gas turbine engines anywhere, although this does not last long.
1925: Wilhelm Pape patents a constant-volume engine design.
1926: Alan Arnold Griffith publishes his groundbreaking paper Aerodynamic Theory of Turbine Design, changing the low confidence in jet engines. In it he demonstrates that existing compressors are "flying stalled", and that major improvements can be made by redesigning the blades from a flat profile into an airfoil, going on to mathematically demonstrate that a practical engine is definitely possible and showing how to build a turboprop.
1946: Sam Baylin develops the Baylin Engine a three cycle internal combustion engine with rotary pistons. A crude but complex example of the future Wankel engine.
In the early 1950s engineers for The Texas Company—i.e. now Chevron—developed a four stroke engine with a fuel injector that employed what was called the Texco Combustion Process, which unlike normal four stroke gasoline engines which used a separate valve for the intake of the air-gasoline mixture, with the T.C.P. engine the intake valve with a built in special shroud delivers the air to the cylinder in a tornado type fashion at then the fuel is injected and ignited by a spark plug. The inventors claimed their engine could burn on almost any petroleum based fuel of any octane and even some alcohol based fuels—e.g. kerosine, benzine, motor oil, tractor oil, etc.—without the pre-combustion knock and the complete burning of the fuel inject into the cylinder. While development was well advanced by 1950, there is no records of the T.C.P. engine being used commercially.
1950s development begins by US firms of the Free-piston engine concept which is a crankless internal combustion engine.
Electric starters are now almost universal for small and medium-sized engines, while compressed-air starting is used for large engines.
Modern vs. historical piston engines
The first piston engines did not have compression, but ran on an air-fuel mixture sucked or blown in during the first part of the intake stroke. The most significant distinction between modern internal combustion engines and the early designs is the use of compression and, in particular, in-cylinder compression.
Bertha Benz Memorial Route, commemorating the world's first long distance journey with an automobile propelled by an internal combustion engine in 1888.