The work and life of János Csonka

The following material is reproduced here form the article „The Work and Life of John Csonka”, by Terence Trudeau, in Országos Műszaki Múzeum, Budapest, 1991. (Technikatörténeti szemle XVIII. 1990-0991.)

The (Atomizing) Carburetor

During the second half of the nineteenth century the fast expanding small craft industry developed a need to replace steam engines with cheaper and lighter machines. This led first to the use of natural (city) gas as engine driving fuel. However, since natural gas was not available everywhere, it was desirable to replace it in turn with liquid fuels which could more easily be transported in containers. As early as in 1838, William Barett, an English engineer and the German Siegfried Marcus experimented with primitive surface evaporators, to make a gas out of heated kerosene. Their purpose was to replace natural gas with kerosene engine fuel. These experiments met with little success. Surface evaporators could only be used with stationary engines, because they were bulky, and the heating of kerosene represented a constant fire hazard, especially so on moving vehicles.

The famous original gas engine of Lenoir (1860) as perfected by August Otto and Eugene Langen, resulted in the first four-stroke engine. These engines were fueled exclusively by natural gas.

In 1883, John Csonka’s 3 HP gas engine was patented. It could use either natural gas, or kerosene. Although this was a four-stroke engine, it eluded the still valid patent of Otto, by using an ingenious link-disk combination instead of the 2 : 1 gear ratio specified in the Otto patent.

In 1886 Csonka and Donát Bánki, both excellent designers, started a joint effort to improve gas engines. At this time Csonka had already designed and built several engines, including a greatly improved model, built in 1879. All their joint inventions were published under the name of „Bánki-Csonka.” This sequence of names was used for alphabetic reasons only.

Several gas engine designers have tried unsuccessfully to develop a system which could replace the dangerous and bulky surface evaporator used in those days. Csonka and Bánki were also working hard to find a solution to this problem. On a spring evening in 1890, after a tiring day at the Technical University in Budapest, Hungary, the two good friends walked to a nearby coffee-house. On one street corner Csonka caught sight of a flower-girl who sprayed her flowers with water, using an air blowing atomizer, operated by a rubber bulb. Csonka pointed to the girl and exclaimed: „Look at that girl! There is the solution! We should feed the liquid fuel into the engine, atomized by air flow!”

Then he stepped up to the girl, gave her a large bill and said: „I want no flowers, I only wish to remunerate you for the idea you have just inspired in me.” Wiht those words the two friends left the astonished flower girl, and entered the coffee house.

There they immediately drew a sketch of a liquid fuel atomizer on the white marble table. This time they did not read the newspapers, as they normally would have, but hurried back to the University. Working late into the night, the first design of the carburetor was created. Csonka machined and mounted it on their newly built kerosene engine. The engine started up at once, and ran on kerosene, fed only through the carburetor, without the use of a surface evaporator. Thus, in the summer of 1890, the carburetor was born. The first model of the carburetor had the peculiarity that its float was not made of a tinned plate, but of solid cork.

Although the first carburetor was fully operational by the summer of 1890, according to the documents quoted below, the two friends did not apply for a patent until February 11, 1893. Their application might have been delayed even further, had an unexpected event not taken place the day before, on Feb. 10, 1893. On that day Pál Lázár, professor at the Technical University in Budapest, delivered a public lecture on the topic of „Farm Engines”, and in the course of his talk he described the Bánki-Csonka atomizing carburetor. This unexpected turn of events forced the two inventors to act at once to protect their rights. Accordingly, the patent application was submitted in great haste, the very next day. The Hungarian patent was issued on May 3, 1894, 10891/1893.

Csonka was an extremely modest man and did not care much for publicity, thus for a long time the invention of the atomizing carburetor did not appear in the technical literature. However, it just so happened that not much later the German Daimler company’s famous chief engineer, Wilhelm Maybach, also designed an atomizing carburetor. There is no evidence to suggest that he obtained this idea from the work of Bánki and Csonka. It appears that he re-invented the device independently. When Maybach applied for a German patent, his request was rejected, because the patent office already knew about the Bánki-Csonka carburetor. In order to receive at least some patent coverage, despite the German rejection, Maybach applied for a French patent on August 17, 1893. This time he did manage to receive a patent, No. 232 230, since the French patent office in those days did not carry out any preliminary investigation of existing foreign patents before issuing a French patent. This patent had, of course, little practical value.

It is a fact that the Bánki-Csonka patent had six months and six days priority over the Maybach patent. Furthermore, the first Bánki-Csonka carburetor was built long before the inventors applied for the Hungarian patent. An article by Dr. P. Vajda, edited by the publishing house of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, quotes Oscar Glatz, a former foreman of Csonka who was still alive in 1941: „By the autumn of 1891, the carburetor was completed after a year and a half of experimentation and preparatory work, including the carburetor’s float valve chamber and the float-valve control.” He was able to pinpoint the time as the autumn of 1891, since it was then that Oscar Glatz was called up for military service. By then, with the carburetor completed, the two inventors turned their attention to improving the ignition system (Their new system was the patented ignition tube, designed to replace the flame ignition system used in those days, which represented a major fire hazard).

It is also a fact that Maybach employed a petrol dropping apparatus with his first carburetor, while in the Bánki-Csonka invention the float secured a constant fuel level. It is clear, therefore, that the Bánki-Csonka device not only had priority, but was of a superior design. In spite of this, in most of the technical literature available today, including the majority of reference volumes, W. Maybach is listed as the inventor of the carburetor.

Maybach himself, however, was fully aware that the Bánki-Csonka patent had priority over his, and in a letter to Bánki he acknowledged this fact.

More recently, in a document dated October 7, 1982 and addressed to Albert B. Csonka, son of John Csonka, the Deutches Museum in Munich, Germany, which owns an original Bánki-Csonka carburetor, also confirmed the world priority of the Bánki-Csonka atomizing carburetor.

On November 30, 1896, the two Hungarian inventors also applied for patent protection for their carburetor in the United States. As a result the United States Patent Office issued patent 595, 552.

During the next century or so, the carburetor was greatly improved, but in spite of these modifications all carburetors in the world today still operate in the manner originally conceived by Bánki-Csonka. The so-called „Micro-Carburetor” was one of the most significant improvements of this kind, patented some 80 years after the original invention. It is interesting that its inventors, in turn, were the two younger sons of John Csonka.

The first model of the Bánki-Csonka atomizing carburetor (pulverizer) is now preserved at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Budapest, Hungary. It was on display at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and many other fairs.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the word „carburetor” does not correctly reflect the operation of the device. It was derived from the French word „carburateur”, originally used to describe the heating equipment of early steam-engine driven vehicles. A more appropriate name would be „atomizer”, because the carburetor’s main function is to deliver to the engine a mixture of air and atomized liquid fuel, i. e. one in which tiny fuel droplets float in air. Indeed, in Hungary where the first carburetor was made, it is still called „porlasztó”, meaning pulverizer, because that was the name given to it by its inventors.

The Life and Work of János Csonka

Csonka was born on January 22, 1852 Szeged, Hungary. In those days Szeged was the second largest city in Hungary. Csonka was the youngest of the seven children of Vincent Csonka, the well respected guild master of the blacksmiths in Szeged and vicinity.

John’s father was a true master of his craft, who operated a workshop with the help of several live-in helpers. He not only designed and built wind-mills, water-mills, oil presses, fire pumps, etc., but also made the finest medical and dental instruments for the city hospital. Following an ancient tradition, he spoke and wrote Latin fluently.

The house in which John was born, withstood the devastating floods of 1879, that spared only 334 of Szeged’s 6000 houses. Since 1965 this house is marked with a commemorative plaque.

As a boy of three, John watched the first locomotive in Szeged being unloaded from a ship onto the shore of the River Tisza. Blessed with an excellent memory, he never forgot this event, and was always able to describe it in great detail. This scene sparked the little boy’s interest in engines of all sorts, and proved to be a turning point in his life. Already at a very young age he demonstrated courage and independence. At one time, during a horse race for cavalry officers, a rider was thrown off by his mount, and the wild horse galloped away. It was the young boy John, son of Vincent, the guild master, who finally caught and quieted down the high-strung animal. John was not yet ten, when he observed that one of his friends was drowning in the River Tisza. Although he himsellf was not as yet a good swimmer, Csonka did not hesitate to jump into the river to save the life of his friend.

During his high school years he studied German as an exchange student in a German-speaking city. At 14 he started to learn his father’s trade. By 19, he was already working in the round-house and locomotive shop at Szeged. At 21, he went to Budapest, the capital of the country, to enhance his knowledge of locomotives. Here a serious leg injury confined him to a hospital bed for a long period of time. He used this opportunity to learn French. At 22 he travelled abroad to improve his technical expertise. He worked in factories in Austria, Switzerland, and finally Paris, then the technical and scientific center of the world. It was during his two year stay in the French capital, that at an exhibition he saw gas engines for the first time in his life. Csonka had photographic memory. He never forgot a technical design after catching a glimpse of it even once. Later he could make sketches of everything he saw. Always eager to learn, he remained undeterred by hardship. He liked to joke about the fact that in Paris the water froze in his washbasin when the weather turned cold.

At 25 he returned home, but not before he visited London and other industrial centers in England. On February 11, 1877, he was appointed head ot the training workshop of the Budapest Technical University. He kept this position for more than 48 years, till 1925, instructing two generations of mechanical engineers. He taught them not only the technical skills they would need, but also to appreciate hard physical work, by insisting that they participate in it and do it well. His position at the University gave him the opportunity to be active in several fields. He began by designing and building a gas engine to drive the machinery in his shop. Nobody before him built such an engine in Hungary nor in Eastern Europe, for that matter. His gas driven engine was completed in 1879. Subsequently, he designed a gas and kerosene engine, for which he was awarded a patent in January 1883.

One of his students, Donát Bánki was fascinated by his engine, and studied it in great detail. After his university studies, Bánki became an engineer at the largest machine factory in Hungary, Ganz and Company in Budapest. The Ganz-Mavag bulletin in May 1961 commented on the 100th birthday of Bánki as follows:
The first Hungarian made gas engine was designed by János Csonka in 1883. It was consturcted in response to the energy demand of the machine shop at the Technical University, and it was operated there until 1888 without any breakdowns. The four-stroke 3 HP engine with valve control, could be operated either with illuminating gas, or with petroleum (kerosene) by simply shifting one pin. Recent publications refer to it as „the best constructed among four-stroke engines which, apart from the Daimler type engine, came nearest to the form of the internal combustion engines as it was developed later.” As a student, Bánki made friends with János (John) Csonka. Csonka worked then as the head of the machine shop of the Technical University … After extensive experiments, first at the plant of the Works and later in the instruction shop of the Technical University, in 1889 they finished their first jointly constructed gas engine, which was protected by various patents. The engines … were put on the market with the name „Ganz Engine” but it was indicated on the engine switchboard that they were manufactured according to the Bánki-Csonka patent.

These engines of the Ganz Works were the first engines manufactured by Hungarian industry… The cooperation of these two men was to play a prominent role in the development of Hungarian engine production and the technical sciences.

Early in their careers, Bánki and Csonka concentrated their efforts on various ways to use petroleum (kerosene) as engine fuel. They were motivated by the knowledge that this liquid could be made available in the countryside to people living on small farms. Already in the eighteen-eighties they constructed a vertically arranged petroleum engine, in which the difficult problem of vaporizing the fuel was solved by a surface evaporator preheated by exhaust gases from the engine.

After a study of the Robson type gas hammer, Bánki and Csonka created their own machine, driven by petroleum: the Bánki-Csonka petroleum hammer. It was better than the Robson hammer, the engine integrated with the hammer was also capable of driving a transmission. The first model was completed in 1888, and for 22 years it was in operation in the machine shop of the Technical University in Budapest. These hammers ranged from 2 HP to 10 HP, they were manufactured for several decades by the Ganz Works in Budapest and also in Germany, protected by both Hungarian and German patents. These machines were displayed at the Genova and Berlin exhibitions in 1896.

As discussed earlier, the revolutionary invention of the atomizing carburetor was announced in a patent application on February 11, 1893. From that time on, all engines constructed by Bánki and Csonka were equipped with this new device. These so-called Bánki-Csonka engines, known for their reliable service and attractive appearance, were widely used in Hungary and the neighboring countries.

Between 1886 and 1898 the collaboration between Bánki and Csonka gradually came to an end. At that time Bánki became interested in developing high compression ratio gasoline engines. These were designed to operate by cooling the inside of the combustion chamber with an atomized fine water spray. He was also drawn to various problems in hydrodynamics, notably questions pertaining to airplane stabilization, as well as steam and water turbine performance.

By contrast, Csonka’s interest turned to gasoline driven highway vehicles. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, he came to realize with increasing clarity the revolutionary impact that long distance communication would make on all aspects of life in the coming new age. He felt the need to develop vehicles which would one day bring all this to pass. He became a pioneer and creator of the new technology.

He designed and built the first engine-driven tricycle in 1900, and the first automobile not only in Hungary, but also in this part of the world (Indeed, when he tested his first models by taking them on long trips into the Hungarian countryside, including the Great Planes and the mountains of Transylvania, terrified villagers in Transylvania knelt and crossed themselves as the „horseless carriage” passed them on remote roads, suspecting that the devil himself must be in the driver’s seat.)

His designs were original. In certain important aspects they were far ahead of any other contemporary design. Even today the observer is enchanted by their beauty derived from simple construction and logical structuring which reveals the handiwork of a true master. These early vehicles performed remarkably well, even by modern standards. For example, the first eight automobiles he ever built were purchased by the Royal Hungarian Postal Service, and over a period of 25 years were driven an average of 500.000 kilometers each. They initiated motorized mail delivery in Central and Eastern Europe.

Csonka was the first to use aluminum as a construction material in motor vehicles (in 1900). In 1909 he designed and built ultra light cars that could be lifted by two men. These cars had a single cylinder 4 HP engine with cardan drive, and custom built carburetors. For ignition he used high voltage magnets, and doing so he ignored the dire predictions of those who warned him of the likelihood of electrocuting himself as well as his passengers. In addition to all his other achievements, he thus became a pioneer in this area of technology as well. His last automobile was completed in 1912. It was a very light two seater, with an 8 HP four cylinder engine. He intended it to be cheap, light, easy to maintain, and accessible to the non-rich. In some sense, he constructed the „Volkswagen” of his day. In this model he used three-point suspension. He was the first designer to ever do so. The engine, the clutch. and the transmission were built together into one single engine block. This too, was a revolutionary innovation, which later became standard practice in the automobile industry world-wide. One of these cars was entered in the 1912 international competition. It was the smallest vehicle among all entries, but finished the long demanding mountain trip without a single penalty point. The manufacturing rights to his latest design were bought by a newly established Hungarian automobile manufacturing company, and also by a Canadian car maker.

He demonstrated his creative talent in numerous ways. For example, he made his own slide rule to his own specifications, best suited for his own work. He designed and constructed his own instrument to draw indicator diagrams for steam engines, textile and steel tensile strength measuring devices, hydraulic presses capable of exerting a force up to 500 metric tons, weight prototypes and balances to be used as standards for the metric system, as well as a motor boat.

In 1896, the „Millenar Exhibition” was held in Budapest, celebrating 1000 years of continuous existence of the Hungarian State in Central Europe. Csonka demonstrated his love for locomotives by building a miniature model that towed the train which ferried visitors around the exhibition grounds. In a similar vein, he built small scale models of celebrated machines and equipment, for educational purposes. These examples of virtuoso craftsmanship are on permanent exhibit in the hallways of the Technical University in Budapest.

In 1917 Csonka established a company which manufactured the first automobile and airplane radiators in Hungary. In 1925, at the age of 73, he, together with his two youngest sons, started a machine shop which soon grew into an industrial plant, called the John Csonka machine Works, Inc. (Csonka János Gépgyára, R.T.). It produced air-cooled, water-cooled, two-stroke and for-stroke gasoline engines and electrical power generators. Following the Second World War, the company was „nationalized” by the state. Under the name „Small Engine and Machine Works) (kismotor és Gépgyár), this properous company represents an important component in Hungary’s industrial base today**. It is worth recalling that this entire organization developed from the original small shop, in which all work was based on four machine tools, not bought, but hand built by John Csonka and his two sons, using gauges, and highly accurate calibration methods all developed and constructed by themselves.

Csonka participated in the day-to-day operation of this company during the last 15 years of his life. He supervised all work, gave his advice freely, and enjoyed teaching his employees how to realize the best possible product. As a result, the quality of work put out by the company was legendary. Many of his original employees later became well known technical experts themselves, yet continued to remember Csonka, their former employer and teacher, with respect and gratitude.

J. Csonka loved his work. During 48 years of service at the Technical University in Budapest, he took only one ten-day vacation. But he traveled to every technical exhibition held in Paris, this was one way in which he kept up with new ideas everywhere in the world. In addition, he spent many days criss-crossing his country as a consultant on all problems related to steam or gasoline engines.

In 1923 a Chamber of Engineers was established in Hungary, exclusively for engineers with university degrees. The Chamber greatly honored Csonka by granting him membership by invitation, under the „genius” clause contained in the constitutional rules of this organization. Csonka was the first person ever to be so admitted.

When John Csonka was 87 years old, his company received an order for very light electrical power generators, each combined with a 50 ccm four stroke engine, to be delivered to the Turkish Armed Forces. Csonka prepared all the designs. The generators were to be portable in a knapsack. Later his company built these devices and they were operated as expected. But Csonka did not live to see his success. After a brief two week illness, he died in 1939.

As we contemplate the life of this remarkable man, his achievements are self-evident. But they appear to be even more impressive if we keep in mind that he lived not in one of the rich countries or sprawling empires of our age, but in one of the most turbulent areas of the world, torn by wars and revolutions, in a country first devastated, then divided up and partially occupied by foreign powers in the wake of the First World War.

Today one of the single-cylinder automobiles built by John Csonka and one of his four-cylinder vehicles can be seen at the Museum of Transportation in Budapest. Also displayed there is the chassis of his very first automobile. His bust stands in the garden of that museum. The first experimental piece of the Bánki-Csonka engine equipped with an atomizing carburetor is in the possession of the National Museum of Technology in Budapest. Other items and memorabilia are exhibited at various locations in Hungary.

A more important monument to John Csonka’s life work, however, are his ideas as preserved by generations of former collaborators, students and employees, with whom he had been associated during his long and extraordinarily productive lifetime. … Over the decades, many of these men have made outstanding contributions to science and technology, and have themselves since raised students whose work has by now encompassed the entire globe, including most notably the United States. And, of course, a monument to John Csonka’s genius are his many inventions, the most important among which is undoubtedly the atomizing carburetor. Through these he became one of the giants, whose vision helped to shape the industrial era of gasoline engines, automobiles, airplanes, highways and airports, in short, the modern world as we have come to know it.