Rudolf's Vision Lives On

A California woman's search for family ties to Rudolf Diesel gives her a deeper understanding of the inventor's original vision and turns her into a true biodiesel believer.
By Louisa Aronow | December 01, 2004
In the spring of 2003, Barbara Getrost was attending an event at New College in Santa Rosa, Calif., with her husband Win when she spotted an interesting flyer on a bulletin board. The posted leaflet announced an event celebrating the birthday of the late Rudolf Diesel, a man Getrost believed to be her great-great-uncle.

It was the first time she had ever mentioned a word to her husband about her presumed lineage. Needless to say, the sudden revelation spurred the couple to attend the celebration, as much to meet the people commemorating the birth and life of the inventor of the diesel engine as to find out about another curiosity highlighted on the flyer-biodiesel.

The slender, cheery blond-haired artist bears only a slight resemblance to the black-and-white photos of the serious engineer who created the diesel engine over a century ago. As a child, Getrost wasn't very impressed when her mother told her she was related to one of the world's most important inventors.

"I didn't know what a diesel engine was " she said. "My mom never said that the engine [originally was designed to run] on peanut oil. My family was not one for telling stories."

However, that fateful visit to Sonoma County's center of biodiesel activity connected Getrost with the biodiesel industry and started her on a genealogy exploration that would help her better understand her own role in the world.

Her biodiesel experience begins
She and her husband attended Diesel's birthday celebration, met the local biodiesel stakeholders and learned how the golden liquid can help the planet. But they weren't ready to dispose of their gas-powered cars just yet.

"We were interested, but we just looked at each other and said, 'No,'" Getrost explained. "I was leasing a little Volvo-my first new car-and I loved it. But then my three-year lease was up, and the war [in Iraq] was brewing. Some friends had four Mercedes for sale, so I got one. It's a '77. I call it 'Blue Flame,'" she explained.

Now Getrost has been using high biodiesel blends for over a year. The couple even became shareholders in their regional biodiesel supplier, Yokayo Biofuels.

Exploring connections
Curiosity led Getrost to find her exact family connection to the famous engineer. Getrost's late mother did not leave much information and remaining relatives are now scattered over the globe. But spurred on by this Biodiesel Magazine interview, Getrost was able to contact her second cousins in Germany and discovered that the inventor Rudolf Diesel was probably not her great-great uncle after all, but her great-grandmother's second cousin.

In spite of the distance of their connection, there are many parallels between the life of Rudolf Christian Carl Diesel and his distant relative, Barbara Getrost. Both have lived in various countries, giving them a broad understanding of the needs of our planet. Diesel was born of Bavarian parents in Paris in 1858, but the family was forced to move to England because of international politics. Diesel excelled as a student in Germany. Getrost's parents immigrated to New Zealand from Germany in the 1950s, and she grew up in the pristine seaside city of Wellington. Her studies took her to England, and now she resides in a cozy but elegant cottage near downtown Santa Rosa. Diesel and Getrost both married United States citizens. Getrost, like Diesel, has a fiercely creative spirit that propels her toward innovation.

As a child, Diesel enjoyed drawing, figuring out how things work and visiting museums. By the age of 14, he knew that he wanted to be an engineer and was the youngest student ever to graduate from the mechanical engineering program in Augsburg. In his first engineering job, he began exploring how to make more efficient refrigeration and steam engines. He patented the internal combustion engine in 1898 and won the Grand Prix prize at the World Exposition in Paris in 1900 for his invention.

Getrost was always creating art as a child but studied bioprocess engineering for her higher education. However, after six months on her first job, she realized it wasn't her destiny. She left engineering to pursue the world of art and is now finding a great void in visual representations that celebrate pregnancy. Most of her watercolor prints depict juxtapositions of the Earth with the joy of birth.

"I connect this whole thing that's happening to our planet with art, and it's all connected to biodiesel," she said, proudly displaying the large blue Earth painted on the back window of her Mercedes.

Getrost isn't too disappointed to find that she doesn't have direct lineage to Rudolf Diesel, because her investigations brought her closer to the inventor and herself. She eagerly shared his famous quote from 1912: "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time."
Putting the paper on the table, Getrost glanced upwards and remarked, "He's probably sitting up there, cheering us on."

Louisa Aronow is a freelance writer living in Redwood Valley, Calif. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
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