The patent application written by the Niépce brothers in 1807 and
Napoleon Bonaparte on 20 July 1807
The Pyréolophore[a] (French: [pi.ʁe.ɔ.lɔ.fɔʁ]) was the
world's first internal combustion engine. It was invented in the early
19th century in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, by the Niépce brothers:
Nicéphore (who went on to invent photography) and Claude.
In 1807 the brothers ran a prototype internal combustion engine, and
on 20 July 1807 a patent was granted by
Napoleon Bonaparte after it
had successfully powered a boat upstream on the river Saône.
Pyréolophore ran on what were believed to be "controlled dust
explosions" of various experimental fuels. The fuels included mixtures
Lycopodium powder (the spores of Lycopodium, or clubmoss), finely
crushed coal dust, and resin.
Operating independently, in 1807 the Swiss engineer François Isaac de
Rivaz built the De Rivaz engine, a hydrogen-powered internal
combustion engine. These practical engineering projects may have
followed the 1673 theoretical design of an internal combustion engine
by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens.
The separate, virtually contemporaneous implementations of this design
in different modes of transport means that the de Rivaz engine may be
correctly described as the first use of an internal combustion engine
in an automobile (1808), whilst the
Pyréolophore was the first use of
an internal combustion engine in a boat (1807).
1 Preliminary research
2 Proof of concept
4 Further development
4.1 Fatal design flaw
6 See also
8 External links
8.1 Gallery and archive at the Niépce House Museum
The Niépce brothers were living in
Nice when they began their project
to create an engine based on the newly defined principle of hot air
expanding during an explosion. The challenge was to find a way to
harness the energy released in a series of explosions.
In 1806 the Niépce brothers had presented a paper on their research
to the French National Commission of the Academy of Science (French:
Institute National de Science). The Commission's verdict was:
The fuel ordinarily used by MM. Niépce is made of lycopodium spores,
the combustion of which is the most intense and the easiest; however
this material being costly, they replaced it with pulverized coal and
mixed it if necessary with a small portion of resin, which works very
well, as was proved by many experiments. In Mm. Niépces' machine no
portion of heat is dispersed in advance; the moving force is an
instantaneous result, and all the fuel effect is used to produce the
dilatation that causes the moving force.
Lazare Carnot and C. L. Berthollet, Report for the National
Commission of the Academy of Science, 15 December 1806
Proof of concept
In 1807 the brothers constructed and ran a prototype internal
combustion engine, and received a patent for ten years from the Bureau
of Arts and Trades (French: Bureau des Arts et Métiers) in Paris.
The patent was signed by Emperor
Napoleon Bonaparte and dated 20 July
1807, the same year that Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz
constructed and ran a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine. It
is not clear how much these practical engineering projects owe to the
theoretical designs of 1680 by the Dutch scientist Christiaan
Pyréolophore ran on controlled dust explosions of various
experimental fuels, including various mixtures of finely crushed coal
Lycopodium powder, and resin. De Rivaz, meanwhile, was using a
mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.
Saône at Chalon, site of the first trials of the Pyréolophore
To prove the utility of the
Pyréolophore to the patent commission,
the brothers installed it on a boat, which it powered upstream on the
river Saône. The total weight was 2,000 lb (910 kg), fuel
consumption was reported as "one hundred and twenty-five grains per
minute" (about 8 grams or 0.28 ounces per minute), and the performance
was 12–13 explosions per minute. The boat was propelled forward as
Pyréolophore sucked in the river water at the front and then
pumped it out towards the rear. Thus, the Commissioners concluded
that "the machine proposed under the name Pyreolophore by Mm. Niépce
is ingenious, that it may become very interesting by its physical and
economical results, and deserves the approbation of the
The operation of the
Pyréolophore was first described in a meeting at
the Academy of Sciences on 15 December 1806.
Lazare Carnot noted that
"there was a bright flash of the 'spores of lycopodium' inside their
sealed copper machine... The Niépce brothers, by their own device and
without using water, have managed to create a commotion (explosion) in
a confined space which is so strong that the effects appear to be
comparable to a steam engine or fire pump".
Pyréolophore operated as a series of discrete burns at a
frequency of about 12 per minute to power a boat. Power was delivered
in pulses, each pulse forcing water from the engine's tail pipe set
under the boat and pointing towards its stern. The boat was pushed
forward at each pulse by the reactive force of the ejected mass of
Pyréolophore engine consists of two principal interconnected
chambers: a firelighting chamber and a combustion chamber. There is
also a bellows for injecting air, a fuel dispenser, an ignition
device, and a submerged exhaust pipe. There is a means of storing
energy at each explosion in order to work the mechanism as it prepares
itself for the next cycle.
A mechanically operated bellows injects a jet of air into the first
chamber where ignition will take place. Mechanical timing lets fall a
measured amount of powder fuel into the jet so that it is blown along
and mixed with it. Under the control of the mechanical timing
mechanism a smoldering fuse is introduced to this fuel air jet at the
precise moment it passes the fuse location. The fuse then withdraws
behind a metal plate. The now burning ball of powder and air travels
though a wide nozzle into the main combustion chamber where a fast,
almost explosive, burn takes place. The whole system now being almost
airtight, a build-up of pressure follows. The pressure acts against
the column of water in the exhaust pipe and expels it from the system.
As the flow of exhaust gas moves into the tail pipe, it moves a loose
piston in the combustion chamber which extracts and stores sufficient
power to work the machine's timing mechanisms. Energy from this piston
is stored by lifting weights attached to a balance wheel. The return
of this wheel to its lower position under the pull of the weights
governs the timing for the next cycle by operating the bellows, fuel
dispenser, the fuse and valves at the correct points in the cycle. The
tail pipe, being under the boat, fills with water ready for the next
discharge. The fall of the timing piston also expels the exhaust gases
via a pipe above the ignition chamber, which is closed off by a valve
during the burn part of the cycle.
On 24 December 1807, the brothers reported to
Lazare Carnot that they
had developed a new, highly flammable fuel (powder) by mixing one part
resin with nine parts of crushed coal dust.
In 1817 the brothers achieved another first by using a rudimentary
fuel injection system.
By 1817 there was insufficient progress to attract subsidy and
investment, so the ten-year patent expired. Worried about losing
control of the engine, Claude traveled first to Paris and then to
England in an attempt to further the project. He received the patent
consent of King George III on 23 December 1817. This was not the
key to success. Over the next ten years, Claude remained in London,
Kew and descended into delirium, whereby he squandered much
of the family fortune chasing inappropriate business opportunities for
the Pyréolophore. Nicéphore, meanwhile, was also occupied with
the task of inventing photography.
Fatal design flaw
In 1824, after the brothers' project had lost momentum, the French
Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot
Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot scientifically established the
thermodynamic theory of idealized heat engines. This highlighted the
flaw in the design of the Pyréolophore, whereby it needed a
compression mechanism to increase the difference between the upper and
lower working temperatures and potentially unlock sufficient power and
To celebrate the bicentenary, the Paris Photographic Institute
(Spéos) and the Niépce House Museum produced a 3D animation of the
working machine in 2010. Manuel Bonnet and Jean-Louis Bruley of the
Maison Nicéphore Nièpce and Hadrien Duhamel of the École Nationale
Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers (ENSAM) created the video.
Timeline of transportation technology
History of the internal combustion engine
Timeline of heat engine technology
^ from Ancient Greek πῦρ (pyr), meaning 'fire', Αἴολος
(Aiolos), meaning 'wind', and -φόρος (-phoros), meaning 'bearer')
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Other Inventions: The Pyrelophore". Niépce
House Museum. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
^ a b Coulibaly, T. (2007). Il y a une siècle, l'Automobile [A
Century of the Automobile] (in French). Ouest France.
^ Berthollet and Carnot (1807). "Rapport sur une nouvelle machine
inventée par MM. Niepce et nommée par eux pyréolophore" [Report on
a new machine invented by Messrs. Niepce and named by them the
"pyréolophore"]. Mémoires de la Classe des Sciences Mathématiques
et Physiques de l'Institut National de France (in French):
146–153 ; see p. 151.
^ Eckermann, Erik (2001). World History of the Automobile. Warrendale,
Pennsylvania: Society of Automotive Engineers. p. 18.
ISBN 0-7680-0800-X. Retrieved 17 August 2010.
^ a b c d Bonnet, Manuel; Bruley, Jean-Louis; Duhamel, Hadrien (19
July 2010). Pyréolophore. youtube.com. Maison Nicéphore Nièpce /
École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers
École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers (ENSAM). Retrieved 17
^ The Pyreolophore at photo-museum.org Accessed 5 July 2017
^ "Licence issued by George III of England on 23 December 1817" (in
French). Niepce House Museum. Retrieved 19 August
2010. [permanent dead link]
^ "Nicephore Niepce NB Subtitled (From, the free
encyclopedia)". www.all-art.org. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
Accessed 5 July 2017
^ "Joseph Nicéphore Niepce Biography (1765–1833)". madehow.com.
Retrieved 19 August 2010.
^ "The First Photograph — Heliography". Retrieved 2009-09-29.
from Helmut Gernsheim's article, "The 150th Anniversary of
Photography," in History of Photography, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1977:
... In 1822, Niépce coated a glass plate ... The sunlight passing
through ... This first permanent example ... was destroyed ... some
years later. Accessed 5 July 2017
Website about Niépce (in French)
Website about Niépce (in English)
3D video of the inner workings of the
Pyréolophore – by Hadrien
École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers
École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers (ENSAM).
Project supervised by Manuel Bonnet and Jean-Louis Bruley of the
Maison Nicéphore Niépce. YouTube, Accessed March 2012
Gallery and archive at the Niépce House Museum
Exhibit 0: Index of all 28 exhibits in the on-line archive
Exhibit 1: Bicentenary of the invention of the Pyréolophore. The 1st
internal combustion engine. Presented by 'The Academy of Science'
Exhibit 7: Letter from Louis Charles Brunet to Claude Niépce, 29 July
Exhibit 8: Letter from Louis Charles Brunet to Claude Niépce, 3
Exhibit 9: Full life and cutaway drawings of the Pyréolophore
Exhibit 10: Technical drawing of the
Pyréolophore and the hull in
which it was installed.
Exhibit 11: Letter from les frères Niépce to Nompère de Champagny,
Minister of the Interior, 9 November 1806
Exhibit 21: Certificate of Patent (Brevet) 1791
Exhibit 22: Napoleon's signed patent consent. 20 July 1807
Exhibit 23: Letter from Hely d'Oissel to the Minister of the Interior,
24 November 1808
Exhibit 25: Letter from Nicéphore to Claude on 26 March 1817