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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Ferdinand Porsche, Automotive Pioneer

Posted July 13, 2007 1:50 PM

Ferdinand Porsche was one of the greatest automotive engineers of all time. Though largely uneducated, he designed the first petroleum-electric hybrid vehicle, a series of successful racing cars, and the first Volkswagen.

Ferdinand Porsche was born on September 3, 1875 in Vratislavice nad Nisou, a district in the city of Liberec in what is now the Czech Republic. As a boy, he took classes at Liberec's Imperial Technical School and worked in his father's machine shop. When he turned 18, Porsche moved to Vienna, Austria, where he worked for the Béla Egger Electrical Company and audited classes at a local university. During his five-year career at Béla Egger, Porsche developed an electric hub motor for motorized bicycles.

Porsche's First Car

In 1898, Porsche joined Jackob Lohner & Co, a Vienna-based builder of coaches and automobiles. Porsche's first design, a carriage-like car powered by lead-acid batteries and driven by dual electric motors, debuted at the Paris World Exhibition in December of that same year. Although Porsche's first vehicle was speedy, its 1,800-kg battery-pack made hill-climbing difficult. The inventor's solution, an internal combustion engine and a smaller battery pack, represented the first petroleum-electric hybrid vehicle.

From Austro-Daimler to Daimler Motoren Gessellschaft

After serving in the military from 1902 to 1906, Ferdinand Porsche became chief designer for the Austro-Daimler automobile company. In 1910, his 85-hp Model 27/80 won first place in the Prince Henry Tour, a precursor to the German Grand Prix. Several years later, he was promoted to managing director and awarded an honorary doctorate from Vienna Technical University. Although Porsche continued to build successful cars, winning 43 out of 53 races in 1922 was not enough. A year later, he left Austro-Daimler after a disagreement with senior management over the company's future.

Austro-Daimler's loss was Daimler Motoren Gessellschaft's gain. The German automaker's decision to hire Ferdinand Porsche as technical director would soon change the balance of power in European racing. During the second half of the 1920s , Porsche's designs included race cars equipped with superchargers, belt or gear-driven devices which pressurize a fuel-air mixture to increase engine power. Porsche's push for small, lightweight vehicle was far less popular with his employer's board of directors, however. Frustrated by their disinterest, he left Stuttgart for Austria's Steyr Automobile Company, where he worked until economic depression crushed the automaker in 1931.

From Employee to Engineering Consultant

Ferdinand Porsche returned to Stuttgart, Germany in that same year and started his a consulting firm. After recruiting several of his former coworkers, he designed a successful four-cylinder sedan for Wanderer, a German automaker. As Porsche's business grew, he revisited his old notion of a small, lightweight car. Partnerships with Zundapp and NSU Motorenwerke (NSU) were promising at first, but the motorcycle builders were busy reaping the rewards from the sales of their motorcycles.

Adolph Hitler's rise to power would change Porsche's fortunes.

Porsche, Hitler and Volkswagen

As part of his National Socialist agenda, Hitler sought the creation of a car that the average worker could afford. In 1933, the German Chancellor met with Ferdinand Porsche to describe the Third Reich's requirements for a vehicle that could carry two adults and three children, travel at speeds up to 60 mph, get at least 33 mpg, and cost under 1000 reichmarks. By the winter of 1936, Porsche had finished three Volkswagen ("people's car) prototypes. A year later, he joined a Nazi administrator at a newly-built car factory near Hanover. Today, Wolfsburg is still Volkswagen's headquarters.

Ferdinand Porsche's deal with the devil lasted throughout the 1930s and during World War II. In helping to design the Tiger I, Tiger II and Elefant tanks, Porsche powered Hitler's war machine and its blitzkrieg attacks. After the war, Porsche moved to France to resume his Volkswagen designs. He was arrested as a war criminal, however, and languished in prison while his son, Ferry Porsche, struggled to keep the family business alive. The Porsche 356, the first production automobile to bear the Porsche name, was built in an old saw mill by hand.

Return to Germany

In 1949, Ferdinand Porsche returned to Stuttgart and was hired as a consultant by Volkswagen, which had since reverted to German control. For his efforts, Porsche received a royalty on every Volkswagen Type I built. Porsche also visited VW's rebuilt factory in Wolfsburg and advised company president Heinrich Nordhoff about the car that became affectionately known as the Volkswagen Better and the VW Bug.

Several weeks after his visit to Wolfsburg, Ferdinand Porsche suffered a stroke. He never recovered, and died on January 30, 1951.



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Re: Ferdinand Porsche, Automotive Pioneer

07/13/2007 11:36 PM

Dr. Prof. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche was indeed a visionary and undoubtedly a marked genius. Although in his later years he is sometimes associated with the very dark chapter in German history, he was truley apolitical and just sought the physical appearance of his genius, and lived just long enough to see his little Beetle begin to clog the city streets of the new Germany.

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Re: Ferdinand Porsche, Automotive Pioneer

07/15/2007 7:23 PM

And we are supposed to believe that the automobile was first built by Americans in America. LONG LIVE PORSCHE, I drive an Audi built by his parent company and am happy about it

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Re: Ferdinand Porsche, Automotive Pioneer

07/16/2007 8:19 AM

Who said anything about the first automobile being built "by Americans in America"?

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