Felix Wankel and the Rotary Engine

Wankel Cycle animation

Wankel Cycle animation

On August 13, 1902German mechanical engineer and inventor Felix Wankel was born. He is best known for his invention of the first rotary internal combustion engine. Instead of moving pistons, the Wankel engine uses an orbiting rotor shaped as a curved equilateral triangle. Thus it needs few moving parts, is lightweight and compact.

Felix Wankel was born in Baden, the upper Rhine Valley and was educated in Heidelberg where he left school without a degree that would have qualified him for the universityWankel began working for a publishing house in 1926 and together with some friends, he ran an afterwork machine shopWankel was highly talented and was known for his imagination and enthusiasm for combustion engines. Working in the shop was probably very benificial to Wankel, who could not afford apprenticeship and he is believed to have told his friends in the early years that he imagined the construction of a car with “a new type of engine, half turbine, half reciprocating. It is my invention!”. By 1926Wankel attempted to build the rotary automobile engine, but first started by experimenting with rotary valves on motorcycle engines.

However, his mechanical talents were not the only things that defined Felix Wankel. In his early youth, he started to join right-wing and anti-Semitic organizations and became a member of the NSDAP early. At some point – as it is believed – Wankel even received the chance to talk about the issue of technology and education to Adolf Hitler and further leading positions in the party during the late 1920s. He was entrusted the leadership of the Hitler Youth in Baden by Gauleiter Robert Heinrich Wagner, but soon they started to argue about the principles of these groups, as it is assumed that Wankel attempted to put a strong focus on military training while Robert Wagner wanted the Hitler Youth to be a political organization. After further quarrels, Wankel was expelled from the party in 1932 and was arrested one year later for his activities in a National Socialist splinter group. In the following yearsWankel rejoined the NSDAP in the rank of Obersturmbannführer, but was again released shortly after due to unknown reasons. During these yearsWankel continued his research on rotary valves and rotary engines. He also worked for the German government after Hermann Göring agreed to have the Wankel Test Institute set up for him. He managed to device a system for cooling the pistons of an aircraft engine and also a rotary valve for aircraft engines, which was heavily used during the war.

Felix Wankel was imprisoned in France in 1945 and his lab was closed by French troops. In the early 1950sWankel received financial support from the N.S.U. Werke Motor Company and got his engine into production for Mazda cars in Japan and Wankel became financially successful by securing license agreements around the globe.

At yovisto you can learn more about ‘How engineers learn from evolution‘ in a lecture by Dr. Robert Full.

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