L'invenzione rivoluzionaria

Felice Matteucci was born in Lucca in Piazza del Giglio on 12 February 1808. His father, Luigi Matteucci, was a lawyer and Minister of Justice under Prince Felice Baciocchi, and his mother was the aristocratic Angiola Tomei-Albiani of Pietrasanta.

Felice’s interest in science became clear while he was studying at the Royal Bourbon College of Paris where his father, then the Grand-duke’s representative at the court of the king of France, had enrolled him in 1824. It was in Paris that he began to study hydraulics and mechanics and he completed his studies in Florence, showing a special aptitude for these. Niccolò Barsanti was born in Pietrasanta on 12 October 1821, son of Giovanni Barsanti, a marble sculptor and Angela Francesconi.

He was a delicate child with a gentle, affectionate nature. He attended the school run by Piarist Fathers in the S. Agostino Monastery in Pietrasanta, finishing his high school education at the age of 17 with excellent results in all subjects but showing a very marked inclination for the exact sciences and for mathematics and physics in particular. When his school education was finished, his father supposed that his son would go to the University of Pisa to study engineering or medicine. When the young Barsanti, however, went to the headmaster of the school to collect what nowadays would be called his High School Certificate, he told him that he wanted to join the religious congregation of the Piarists. He therefore left for Florence on 17 July 1838, completed his novitiate at the Pellegrino, put on the habit of the Piarists and changed his name to Eugenio.

In September 1841, when he was not yet 20, he was transferred to the San Michele School in Volterra to teach maths and physics. It was there in the spring of 1843 that the “little schoolmaster” (as his pupils nicknamed him because he was so young and slightly built) came into the classroom holding a container with a long neck, an instrument he had made himself for the experiment he was about to do, and which was a copy of Volta’s pistol. The little schoolmaster told his pupils what he was going to do. He then filled the container with hydrogen and air, closed the neck hermetically with a cork, and then shot an electric spark from the tips of an insulated brass rod with two little spheres at each end. Instantly, a deafening explosion shot the cork up to the ceiling and the classroom echoed with the noise. He then explained to his terrified pupils what had happened – the spark had ignited the gas mixture, the mixture had expanded and had thus produced the explosion which had expelled the cork. The instrument that Barsanti used is preserved in Volterra.

With this experiment, in a flash of inspiration, Barsanti had the idea of using the explosion of a gaseous mixture to generate a force that could be used in a continuous motion engine that would be more efficient than a steam engine. In 1845 he was sent back to Florence to teach maths and physics in the San Giovannino School and thereafter he was appointed lecturer in mechanics and hydraulics in the Ximeniano School.

The head of the Ximeniano School at that time was Padre Antonelli, astronomer, mathematician and expert in hydraulics, but, in particular, designer of railway lines chiefly in central Italy. Barsanti told Padre Antonelli about the idea he had had of transforming the force of the explosion of a mixture of gases into a motor force, which might be capable of replacing the steam engine. Padre Antonelli was very impressed and understood at once what the advantages of such a discovery might be. He urged Barsanti not to lose sight of his ideas but to continue his research. He also advised him to ask Felice Matteucci, an engineer who regularly came to the Ximeniano School, to help him. Barsanti explained his ideas to Matteucci who thought them extremely clever and promised to give him as much assistance as he could. The two of them began to carry out important experiments in the Villa in Vorno in order to check the viability of Barsanti’s intuitions regarding the equivalence of thermal energy and mechanical energy.

Matteucci understood the importance of Padre Eugenio Barsanti’s ideas and was happy to put his wide knowledge of mechanics at his friend’s disposal. Towards the end of 1851, as Padre Alfani recorded, Barsanti and Matteucci “carried out a long, detailed series of experiments and delicate measurements, as preparation for the mechanical device that would lead them to victory”. From that time on, the idea was not Barsanti’s alone but became the invention of them both, on account of Matteucci’s contribution to the work. Matteucci was able to turn Barsanti’s brilliant idea into reality with his own brilliance and knowledge of mechanics.

To Barsanti, therefore, is due the credit for the theory of the internal combustion engine, and to Matteucci, the mechanical genius, the credit for putting the theory into effect. It is difficult to reconstruct all the research and experiments that the two inventors carried out but we can safely say that they persisted until they saw their machine throbbing and heard the steady beat of its internal combustion engine. The invention of the internal combustion engine can be precisely dated as 5 June 1853 which is the date on which the inventors lodged a memorial in the Academy of Georgofili recording the experiments they had carried out for constructing the internal combustion engine. The first engine was built that year in an Italian factory, the Pietro Benini Foundry, as is proved by two invoices sent to Felice Matteucci, one dated 9 June 1853, for building the first engine and the other 2 November 1853, for building the first engine and repairing various parts. On 13 May 1854, after a number of setbacks, they finally obtained their first patent, n. 1072, in England. By 1856, an engine driving a drill and a cutting tool was in regular use in the Maria Antonia railway station workshops in Florence. More engines were built between 1858 and 1860 and other patents were issued in England and France and by the Kingdom of Savoy.

Deeply disappointing news was about to come from France, however. In 1860, Etienne Lenoir demonstrated an engine that ran on the same principles as registered by Barsanti and Matteucci in their English patents of 1854 and 1857 and in their French patent of 1858. Despite this, France hailed Lenoir as the inventor of the internal combustion engine. This was a blow to them both, and to Matteucci in particular, but they persevered, notwithstanding, continuing their work with Giovanni Babacci from Forlì, and obtaining a new Barsanti-Matteucci-Babacci patent n. 3270 on 31 December 1861 in England. At this point, and in view of the success of their prototype, they decided to set up a company for building their engines but the newly established New Engine Company urgently required them to build a new, perfectly functioning engine. Nothing daunted, Barsanti set off for Zurich at the famous Escher-Wyss workshops, in order to commission a two-cylinder 20 hp engine. The engine was soon built and sent to Florence, where it was set up in the company’s premises and exhibited at the first Italian Exhibition, held in Florence in 1861. France refused to acknowledge the priority of Barsanti and Matteucci’s discovery. Theirs was a lone voice, however, and they had no support in defending their rights since Italy at that time was recently unified and had more serious problems to deal with. Matteucci, therefore, decided to go to Paris to present their patents but he had to stand by and witness Lenoir’s triumph instead, while his protests went unheard and the French press made no response.

Embittered as well as exhausted by intense research, Matteucci became seriously ill. Meanwhile, Padre Eugenio Barsanti continued to work and to devise further improvements to the engine. In 1863 he left for Milan and the Bauer Workshops (now Breda) where he personally oversaw the construction of the 4 hp engine described in the First System patent granted in France on 9 January 1858. Barsanti was concentrating on building a low power engine because the majority of orders were for small machines. Installation costs would therefore be lower and they would also be in a position to meet the demands of numerous small industries. Barsanti and Matteucci, with the support of their patents in England, France and several other European states, decided to establish the priority of their invention by opening the memorial lodged in the Academy of Georgofili in 1853. The document was read at an ordinary meeting on 23 September 1863 and published in the Academy’s records. The engine built in the Bauer Workshops in Milan excited huge interest and there were so many orders that Barsanti and Matteucci considered entering it in the prize competition that was periodically held by the Institute of Science, Letters and Arts in Lombardy. The engine was admitted to the competition trial. The Institute appointed a Commission made up of Professors Camillo Hajeck, Giovanni Codazza and Luigi Magrini who acted as reporter. At a meeting on 23 July 1863, the Commission presented its report which, after a preamble which mentioned earlier attempts made by others, first of all confirmed the indisputable priority of Barsanti and Matteucci’s invention over Lenoir’s, and then described the working of the engine and the tests carried out to measure its dynamic power and assess its efficiency. The Commission concluded that the hourly cost of running the Lenoir engine was about five times greater than for the Barsanti and Matteucci engine. Finally, the Commission decided to award the silver medal to Barsanti and Matteucci.

The Bauer engine generated so much interest and so many orders that the company decided to build it on a large scale. Investigations were thus begun to find a manufacturing
company and their choice was the John Cockerill Co. in Seraing, Belgium. On 28 February 1864, Barsanti set off for Seraing with the engine and when on his arrival it was started up, the engineers and workmen who saw it in action were astounded. It was a great triumph for Padre Barsanti, but sadly it was to be his last, because he died on 19 April. His body was returned to Florence on 26 May and was buried in the little house in Compiobbi, thereafter it was transferred to S. Giovannino and on 24 October 1954 to Santa Croce in Florence. Matteucci continued his work on the engine alone, but in 1867, bad news arrived from Paris in a letter from the editor of the newspaper Il Gaz. He wrote,

“In the 1867 exhibition there is an engine copied from yours by two Prussian engineers, Otto and Langen. It was awarded the gold medal. In my article I criticised the award and this has brought protests from the parties concerned. I seek the truth: give me your opinion on the judgment I made, and on the reasons that led you to abandon your patent.”

Matteucci set off at once for Paris with his patents, designs and documents, to do his utmost to prove the invention’s priority against everyone who sought to defraud him of his right as inventor, but to no avail. The Imperial French Government’s response was that it was the invention, not the inventor, that was important. Thus, in the end, Barsanti and Matteucci were robbed of all they had worked and hoped for by two Prussians.

Matteucci could find no peace of mind and the engine continued to be his obsession. In 1877, he wrote to Giovanni Sacheri, editor of Civil Engineering – Industrial Arts in an attempt to reopen the priority question but it was of no use. By this time, however, his strength was failing and once again he was overwhelmed by a nervous exhaustion which intensified alarmingly. Fresh air, the peaceful time spent in his country villa in Vorno where he had heard the first sound of the engine, the love of his family and friends – all of these failed to bring about his recovery and he died on 13 September 1887. Here it is fitting to add that he hid his learning behind a veil of noble modesty. He was admired by true scholars, but he lacked and still lacks the protection and favour of the mighty ones. He was buried in the family chapel in the Villa “Alla Marina” (Villa Montalvo) in Campi Bisenzio where he rests to this day.