The History of the Turbocharger

From Locomotives, to Aviation, to the Cars Driven Today, Turbochargers Have Graced them all

Using a turbocharger is one of the surest ways there is to create big gains of power from any engine regardless of its size. The turbocharger uses a turbine, which is powered by the engine’s own exhaust, to drive a compressor that pushes air into the engine and gives it a big boost of power. This is not unlike the application of a supercharger; thought the turbocharger does not use a direct mechanical drive.

The turbocharger’s goal is identical to the goal of the supercharger; to better the engine’s volumetric efficiency by supplying the engine with vast amounts of forced air. This increased air injection will ultimately increase the power and torque of the engine thus making the engine much faster. Because turbochargers use the engine’s exhaust there is what is referred to as ‘turbo lag.’ Turbo lag is the time that it takes for the turbocharger to ‘wind’ up before it kicks in. Anyone who has ever driven a turbocharged vehicle knows exactly what turbo lag feels like.

art12The origins of the turbocharger reach back over 100 years when a Swiss engineer named Alfred Buchi applied for his patent for his version of the turbocharger back in 1905. While it took some years to develop, the turbocharger wasn’t readily used until the 1920s when the shipping industry and the locomotive industry began to take notice of the technology and utilize it. But that was just the beginning.

Aviation gave the turbocharger its first boost in popularity. Originally a GE engineer named Sanford Moss fitted a aircraft engine with a turbocharger to the V12 Liberty in 1918 and tested it at the extreme heights of Colorado’s monster mountain Pikes Peak. The test proved that the normal loss of power that was accustomed to occurring while flying in a thinner altitude could be eliminated with the use of a turbocharger. While the test was a smashing success and very exciting to the world of aviation it wasn’t until many years later that the technology caught on with airplanes.

During the 1930s, just before WWII, many production planes were begging to be fitted with turbochargers during their assembly. The main reason was to increase the altitude capabilities of such aircrafts as the P-38 Lightning, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the B-17 Flying Fortress. The move proved to not only increases the altitude capabilities, but also increased power in the higher altitudes as well, which proved to be a great advantage to have once the war started.

It took a little longer for the automotive world to catch on to turbochargers, but catch on they did. 1938 saw Schweizer Maschinenfabrik Saurer come out with the first turbocharged diesel truck and the technology appeared on different truck engines over the next couple of decades.

The first production automobile engine to be turbocharged was seen in 1962 when General Motors put out both the Oldsmobile Jetfire and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder. Each car featured the turbocharged engines. While the cars represented a new technology that had not yet been seen in production cars, they were not very popular and were considered to be somewhat unreliable.

In 1978, the world of diesel turbocharged engines got its start and the Mercedes 300SD and the Peugeot 604 were both introduced with turbocharged diesel engines. What would happen after that is what is known as history, and today , more times than not, diesel vehicles are turbocharged.

The racing world was not to be denied this wonderful technology and there are many examples of those who set speed records using turbochargers. From an Indy 500 Pole and later a victory, to domination of the F1 Series to the point that they had to be banned, to a one time ‘World’s Fastest Passenger Car,’ the turbocharger has seen it all in the world of racing.

While the turbocharger did indeed take some time to catch on, it has made up for its lack of participation in the early years in spades. Today turbochargers can still be found on locomotive engines, ship engines, airplane engines, street car engines, and race car engines. There have even been certain motorcycles that have used the technology. Turbochargers continue to improve and be developed into more efficient and more powerful applications and at the rate the turbocharger is heading it is but a matter of time before a turbocharged engine becomes the rule and ceases to be the exception to the rule.

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