The Birth of the Supercharger: Invention to First GP Victory

September 12, 2022

The technical term for what a supercharger does, and its kin the turbocharger, is called “forced induction.” Most of us probably know the principle: pressurize the air being fed into the engine so that more fuel is in the combustion chamber. More fuel equals a larger release of kinetic energy from the explosion. Voila! More power from the engine. It is a “cheat code” to a faster car! 

The origins of the forced induction concept and its circuitous journey into the automobile has a few surprising twists and turns. For example, the original concept was first used to mechanically move air through coal mines in England. How did it become an essential component in race cars in the early 20s? That’s what we’re here to discover.

Diagrams of Roots blowers

Industrial Age Origins

1849. The first mechanical forced induction device goes as far back as a dozen years before the American Civil War. A British chap from Birmingham, England, named G. Jones manufactured a lobe pump to ventilate the deep coal mines that fueled the Industrial Age. 

It was a clever design that had two rotating shafts with interlocking lobes. The lobes touched and trapped a pocket of air and then pumped it into a discharge pipe of smaller volume. By decreasing the volume, the air was pressurized.

Roots Brothers

1860. The Roots Blower Co. of Indiana filed a patent that used the lobe design for use in pumping air into blast furnaces. When you hear of a “Roots-type” supercharger, this is from whence it came. The Roots brothers may not have been the first to come up with the idea, but they secured the patent in the U.S. (1860) and U.K. (1868) and developed many new applications. The Roots products are still made today as a subsidiary of Howden, but they are only for industrial use.

Engine Advancements

1878. It took a few more years, but along came a  Scot named Dugald Clerk who famously invented the first working two-stroke engine. As part of his design, he had an auxiliary pumping cylinder that moved air into the chamber. Some consider it the first supercharger, but it didn’t compress the air, just mechanically moved it. A step in the right direction.

Gottlieb Daimler

1885. The first engine to use what we now think of as a supercharger came from none other than Gottlieb Daimler -- one of the greats in automotive history. Daimler built the first vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which also happened to be the first motorcycle. More pertinent to this topic, he was the first to put a supercharger on an internal combustion engine. Again, it was technically forced induction, but it was hardly what we would think of as a supercharger. 

1896. At the end of the 19th Century, innovation around the internal combustion engine was moving quickly. In 1896, Rudolf Diesel filed a patent for using a supercharger on the “compression ignition engine” that now bears his name. 

1900. Daimler made a real breakthrough! He fitted a Roots-style device to a four-stroke engine. At last, the first supercharged internal combustion engine arrived on the scene, just in time for a new century.

1901. Dugald Clerk, mentioned earlier in 1878, continued his engine research and made the connection that artificially forcing air into a four-stroke engine yielded substantially more power. Now we’re getting somewhere!  

1902. Meanwhile, in France, Auguste Rateau invented the centrifugal compressor -- again for mine ventilation -- in 1899. This would become the predominant technology used in turbochargers, a forced induction system driven by the kinetic energy of the exhaust gases. Louis Renault took Rateau’s design and applied it to an automobile engine in 1902, six short years after Diesel first employed forced induction on a gas-powered engine.

1908 Chadwick, the first supercharged road car

Powering Up Cars

1907. In Pennsylvania, a young inventor named Lee Chadwick was experimenting with forced induction to increase engine power. He started with a single 8-inch centrifugal compressor, and it worked like a charm. What did he do next? He added a second, and then a third! He created a three-stage supercharger by bolting three 10-inch impellers together.

He took his car and entered a hillclimb -- and won. It is thought to be the first time a supercharged car entered a race, and it also happened to be its first victory. Chadwick’s car went on to dominate racing at that time, so he decided to put them into production. Chadwick produced 260 cars. The supercharger gave it enough extra horsepower to make it the first automobile available to the public that topped 100 mph.

WWI. Meanwhile, superchargers were being used in aviation, notably in WWI aircraft. Forced induction provided significantly more performance as it compensated for the increasingly thin air at altitude. 

1918. After the war, the experiments continued, but on cars. In 1918, Daimler began testing. After a few years of experimentation, he finally made a Roots-style compressor work on a road car engine.

1921. In September, Daimler introduced the 1.6L 6/25 and 2.6L 10/40 at the Berlin Auto Show. Production kicked off in the spring of 1923 and they were popular with the public. These were the first cars to use the Kompressor badging that continued until it was retired in 2012.

1923 Mercedes 10/40 Kompressor

Off to the Races!

1923. By now, supercharging was starting to get sorted out. Enough work had been done to understand the performance curves, best configurations, and ways to disperse the extreme temperatures generated by the compressors, much of which was solved initially for aviation applications.

Fiat 805

Once the war was over, life returned to normal, including the return of auto racing -- 1923 was a watershed year. It marked not only the first mid-engine car in Grand Prix history with the Benz Tropfenwagen, but the first supercharged one as well. Guido Fornaca, Fiat’s technical director, took the all-conquering 804 from 1922 and installed an 8-cylinder engine with a new-fangled supercharger.

The initial version featured a Wittig vane-type supercharger. It was unreliable, andnot able to withstand the stresses of racing. Fornaca switched to a Roots-type which had better reliability. The engine’s output jumped from 130 bhp to 145 bhp with the supercharger and dual-overhead cams, two valves per cylinder, and a 2L displacement. The 805 could reach speeds of more than 130 mph. It won the first European Grand Prix held at Monza with Carlo Salamano at the wheel in September 1923 (Car #14, pictured at the top).  

That same season, Mercedes took a team of three M7294s, each boasting a supercharged inline 4-cylinder engine, to the Indianapolis 500. The lead car crashed and the other two only managed 8th and 11th. The following year, a Duesenberg became the first supercharged car to win the Indy 500. 

1924 On. The benefits of supercharging were now well known, and nearly every winning car from that point on used forced induction. Vittorio Jano’s Alfa Romeo P2 dominated Grand Prix racing, winning the European Grand Prix in Lyons on August 3, 1924. 

Every leading car used the technology to generate more horsepower with very little added weight -- a winning combination. It was the era that brought us the Miller 122, the 1925 Delage, the Bugatti Type 35C, and the “Bentley Boys” that dominated Le Mans in the late 1920s.

Forced induction is a simple idea that yields outsized benefits. The only reason it has not been consistently in use in Formula One was when it was outright excluded by regulations. Seeing that the original concept still in use today goes back more than 160 years is truly astounding, but shows that great inventions are timeless.

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