When the steam engine was invented at the beginning of the 18th century, most sources of fuel worldwide were the same as they had been for centuries: wood for cooking, oil for lighting, coal for heating and industry. The advent of commercially successful steam power in 1712 allowed for machinery and engines that were larger and more capable than any machines had ever been, catalyzing the dramatic changes of the Industrial Revolution. During the 19th century, continuous improvements to steam engine design transformed factories and built railroads across Europe and the Americas. Both inventors and engineers knew, however, that steam power had significant limitations. Steam must be generated by burning fuel, usually coal: and steam engines were large and bulky to allow for a furnace. The first steam-powered locomotive, invented in 1804 by the English engineer Richard Trevethick, was so heavy it broke the rails it rode on. From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, engineers looked for alternatives to steam that would allow for lighter, more powerful engines.
Internal combustion provided one such alternative. For centuries, inventors had imagined and tinkered with internal combustion engines; the medieval Arab scholar Al-Jazari described twin-cylinder reciprocating pistons in 1206, and Leonardo da Vinci sketched compressionless engines in 1509. The modem combustion engine was the British inventor Robert Street's 1794 model, which used exploding gas to drive the pistons.