Dr Felix Wankel - A brief history of the Inventor and Engineer

Dr Felix Wankel (13 August 1902 - 9 October 1988)

felix Thinking on tangents rather than laterally he has been called legendary, brilliant, a master engineer and even egotistical, amateurish, eccentric, fanatical and futile. The word that will always be Felix Wankel to me is "genius". He was, to this day, one of the few engineering minds of the modern era who did not believe the more conventional, but infinitely more complex, reciprocating engine was the ultimate answer. He believed it could be done better and more easily and spent most of his life on a project that would eventually realise this belief. Hence begins the story of the Wankel Rotary Engine. A story that, thanks to Felix, can now be told with a happy ending.

The promising thing is, the story does not really end there and even today, thousands of people all over the world are still working hard at developing and refining this revolutionary engine.

From the enthusiast in his garage, busily porting his next set of housings to the big budget race teams developing new hard wearing materials for use in high performance race engines. The world of Rotary engines just gets bigger every day and with large multinationals like Mazda still pouring millions into Rotary research and development, our favourite engine looks to be alive and well heading into the next millennium.

Felix Wankel was born an only son to Rudolf and Martha Wankel on 13 August 1902 in Lahr, a small town in the Swabia district, South Western Germany near the Swiss border. It is this area of Germany where Wankel would live out almost his entire life. The inhabitants of this particular area, although jokingly known to be stupid, somewhat crude people, have in reality produced some of engineering's finest minds when it comes to twentieth century engine design. Not far from Wankel's village is the town of Stuttgart, home to names like Daimler, Otto and Benz, known for their refinement of the conventional reciprocating engine and of course the revolutionary diesel engine.

At age twelve, Wankel was left fatherless in the first months of the Great War. Money his fathers estate had left the family was all but wiped out by skyrocketing inflation during the 1920s, basically preventing an already less than keen Wankel from attending either a technical type secondary school or seeking an apprenticeship in an engineering field. Personally Wankel felt that school was a bit of a bore. From 1921 to 1924 Wankel was employed at the University book shop in Heildelberg, dealing mainly in scientific publications. Suffering a kidney complaint during his time there, he was transferred from the printing room away from the lead type, and was positioned in the storeroom where he quickly devised a new and more efficient way to stack books very high without risk of the pile falling. He did this by arranging the books in an unconventional fashion to maximise the stability of the stack. Such was the fertility of his mind that he would constantly see a better way to do things in all aspects of life. Of course this position supplied him with almost limitless amounts of research material to pour over and it was at this time he was also attending night school and completing a correspondence course, building the knowledge base that we know today resulted in the Rotary engine design. He would, later be awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Technical University of Munich, recognising his contributions to engineering science in 1969. In 1924, he began his work on the Rotary engine while still in the employ of the university book shop. This work, though on and off in nature, would last him most of his productive life and he would be employed by many various people over time seeking to tap into the genius of his mind that must have been obvious to any observer.

Wankel was known for his unusual, some would say, undisciplined attitude toward seeing an idea through to it's ultimate, refined form. Opting rather to abandon his research and quickly move on to his next project with almost boyish enthusiasm as soon as a previous idea had reached a stage of successful operation, meeting with his personally strict testing doctrine. To the bewilderment, and sometimes, annoyance of his colleagues Wankel would often behave indifferently to the pleas and enquiries from those still engaged in refining what he had long considered past projects, far to distracted by his latest ideas to backtrack. My analogy is that Wanklel would be happy to build the finest of houses but leave the gardens and landscaping to someone else as he is off, busy improving on his designs elsewhere.felix

During the WW2 years, at times for Hitler's own war effort, Wankel was involved in the development of a rotary disc type valve for use in aircraft and torpedo engines. The Rotary engine project was somewhat shelved during this time. Later, Wankel was employed by, collaborated with and advised many different organisations over the years including BMW, Daimler-Benz, DVL, Junker Aircraft and NSU. It was during this time, working professionally on various projects for others, that he also privately continued working on his own many ideas such as designs for compressors and pumps, but more importantly the embryonic sketches for what was to become the first of the DKM (Drehkolbenmotor - or Rotary Piston Motor) engines. Early in 1957, this DKM engine would run for the first time, however it would be some months of hard work before a successful 2 hour test could be completed, eventually turning in a peak of a little over 20 horsepower. His later design, the KKM (Krieskolbenmotor - Translation please??) engine would first run in July 1958.

Wankel lived out his later years quietly, still turning in long hours of research and testing in his private facility, the Institute, at his home in Swabia and as always maintained his reclusive nature. Up until the early seventies he had always been satisfied with an old Borgward saloon as his car when he was given a Rotary engined NSU Ro80. He died on 9 October 1988 in Lindau, West Germany.

Wankel's extensive working life and various affiliations with different people are too complex and far reaching to present here in any great detail and will be the subject of a future essay.

by G Anderson

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