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The Dutch Elon Musk?

By John Donovan

For as long as I can remember stories have been circulating along the lines that an engineering genius devised a fuelless engine and made the mistake of disclosing his invention to a ruthless oil company oil, which promptly killed the idea. 

It is possible that there is some substance to this mythology.

Shell subsidiary Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (Dutch for Batavian Oil Company), is the oil company allegedly involved, along with Sir Henri Deterding and a senior Shell  Director, Hendrik Colijn. He served as CEO for the Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij and later became CEO of Royal Dutch Shell.

Deterding and Colijn are mentioned in the related book The Wardenier Mystery.

In the 1930’s Dutchman, Johannes Wardenier claimed to have invented a miracle engine that ran almost without fuel. 

He disclosed his idea to a Dutch multinational electrical giant who, at the time, was working on a motor project. That multinational, the alleged key player in conjunction with Shell, Deterding and Hendrik Colijn, allegedly became involved in a conspiracy over the astonishing invention that could potentially change the world. Clearly, a huge threat to the entire oil industry which would have had a devastating impact on the price of oil.

Johannes Wardenier was subsequently said to be held hostage as a patient in the psychiatric ward of the Groningen hospital. When released to return home a week later, his prototype engine had been stolen. He dies suddenly at the age of 47.

There are articles, books, poems, a recent sold-out play, and even an exhibition about this Dutchman and his mysterious story.

Was he a genius or a fantasist?

Printed below is an English translation of a related article published 10 May 2019 by the Dutch FT, Financieele Dagblad.


The Elon Musk from Steenwijkerwold

In 1934 the unemployed Johannes Wardenier presented a “fuelless engine”. The twenties became front-page news, plans for a factory with 13,000 workers were ready. But that engine? It remained a mystery. After two books, there is now also a theatre piece and an exhibition about Wardenier.

Carel Grol: 10 MAY 2019

Johannes Wardenier with his “fuel-free engine”. Photo: Spaarnestad

The Van Harenstraat is steeped in provincial tranquillity this Wednesday afternoon in May. Wolvega’s commercial artery is a street with red vowels. A colossal Scapino. A white goods store with an FC Barcelona poster from at least two seasons ago. A Hema, clothing stores and a supermarket. Little vacancy, but also few shopping people.

Once, 85 years ago, Wolvega, a farming town in the south of Friesland, experienced a burst of hope: a sudden adrenaline rush in a stationary existence. Then suddenly the future looked different. Wolvega was to become the Eindhoven of the Northern Netherlands. “Edisontown!” Shouted the steam train conductors at Wolvega station. A factory of 13,000 people would come here. Almost as much as Wolvega has in 2019 inhabitants.

At least that was the view that John – ‘Jo’ sketched for friends – Wardenier. And with him alderman Willem Muurling.

“He can’t learn, he can think”

The story of the engine without fuel starts in the spring of 1934. Jo Wardenier is the youngest of ten children, born in a neighbourhood in what is now called Steenwijkerwold, the last few meters of Overijssel. “My son cannot learn,” said his father Jan. “But he can think twice as much.” And he could do everything with his hands.

Jo had worked in a rusk factory and when he was not yet eighteen a wrapping machine was built for the rusk rolls. He would later declare that the machine was sold to NV Leeuwarder Papierfabriek – something that the director of that factory denied.

Wardenier was unemployed at the beginning of 1934, but, he hopes, not for long. He has a conversation with Willem Muurling, the young alderman for Public Works and Social Affairs. The subject is the invention that Wardenier claims to have made: an engine that runs almost without fuel.

Wolvega craves a windfall. It is a crisis. A quarter of the Dutchmen are unemployed. Muurling is receptive to the Wardenier story. Mayor Eugen Nicolaas Walle Maas of Weststellingwerf, which includes Wolvega, is also convinced.

Press conference

And so the town buzzes with excitement when a press conference is held on November 1, 1934. Eight journalists are present. That evening, the Nieuwsblad voor Friesland headlines: “Great future for Wolvega.” The Leeuwarder Courant quotes Wardenier a day later: “I have made an invention that will cause a major change in motor skills.”

The core of the invention: an engine on hot air. With only 25 guilders in fuel, the engine can run all year round, says Wardenier.

There is already a blueprint for a factory. Construction, estimated at 13 million guilders, can start within a few months. Land prices are rising. Building sites are being asked for sale. Wolvega is in ecstasy. Poem appears in newspapers. Reportedly, even the oil price fell.

Wardenier, then 22, gets a private secretary for the incoming mail. Marechaussee is at his door. Nobody has seen the engine, but you never know: this invention is going to change the world. Wardenier even gets a gun license. In the meantime he wears tailored suits, smokes cigars and – in 1934 quite special – he drives a car.

A week later everything is over again.

Psychiatric department

Sunday, November 8, 1934, Wardenier is summoned by mayor Maas. He has become suspicious: he has still not seen the miracle engine.

What exactly happened at the town hall that day has never become completely clear. The Leeuwarder Courant writes a day later that the inventor and the mayor have ‘conferred’ almost the entire evening. In the end, a doctor from Wolvega was summoned “who considered transferring Johannes Wardenier to the psychiatric ward of the Groningen hospital,” the newspaper said.

That is how Wardenier ends up in the clinic. After a week he is ‘released’. But when he arrived home, his wonder engine is gone. At least that’s what Wardenier says. He claims that two “high gentlemen” picked him up. His parents, simple people, were, he says, impressed by the duo that just appeared at the farm.

Wardeniers statement: Philips has taken the engine. Because Philips is also working on a hot air motor in those days.

Another theory that comes into vogue: Mayor Maas, the day before Wardenier was brought to Groningen, consulted in Zwolle with, among others, Prime Minister Hendrik Colijn. Is Colijn not a former Shell director? With shares in the company? And isn’t the Wardenier engine a threat to the entire oil industry?

Wardenier says that too: the engine just had to disappear.

He is building a new one. In March 1935 he demonstrated the fuel-free engine in Utrecht. It will be a failure. At a second demonstration, in Wolvega, the attendees only see the metal box that the engine must protect. In November 1935, Wardenier steals two cars. He is arrested and sentenced to one year in jail. After the war he gets tuberculosis, recovers and works – again – on a hot air engine.

But nobody will ever see the thing running.

Biography and theatre play

Wednesday, May 8, 2019. In the empty foyer of theatre De Meenthe van Steenwijk is the retired Henk Ymker, former journalist and publisher. In 1974 he wrote a story about Wardenier. In his decades as a reporter, Ymker produced thousands of articles. “But I’ve never had so many responses to that story about Wardenier.”

When it turned out that there was no motorcycle, residents of Wolvega took to the streets. Photo: Spaarnestad

That eventually became a biography of Wardenier in 1984. A second version was recently published about the man, about his ‘fuel-free engine’ and about the role that Philips would have played. The farmer’s son and inventor is, certainly in this part of the Netherlands, a kind of myth. Next week a play about him will be staged in De Meenthe. Ymker: “609 people fit in here. The piece is sold out four consecutive nights. ”

Ymker was born in 1946. As a kid he sometimes saw Wardenier walking through Steenwijk. And yes, everyone knew who he was. “He was always talked about on birthdays.”

For the second version of his book, he spoke to a handful of people who knew Wardenier. A former neighbour, now in her nineties, remembers how Wardenier would appear on the radio in the November week in question in 1934. Spectacle, for that time. Everyone had gathered around the radio to listen to what Jo from Steenwijkerwold would say.

In the end he said nothing. Because at the time, everything that came on the radio had to be submitted to a committee. And Wardenier refused.


The first version of Ymker’s book was entitled The Wardenier case. The second version is, just like the play, The Mystery Wardenier. Because there are very many ‘loose ends’, says Ymker.

For example, Wardenier would never have worked again after his motorcycle adventures but would have always lived well. According to eyewitnesses, he regularly collected checks at the post office in the post-war years. Payments from Philips? As a lump sum payment?

It is invalidated by an Amsterdam tax inspector who speaks in a radio report from 1986. In the late 1950s he filed a declaration for Wardenier. He didn’t get any money from Philips. Wardenier, the tax inspector says, lived off the trade in newspapers and scrap metals.

Lourens Oldersma also speaks in that radio broadcast from 1986. He was an archivist at the time and thought the history of Wardenier “just a beautiful story.” Together with his brother Folkert, teacher and copywriter, he set out for research thirty years ago. Maybe for a book, or for a television program.

As archivist, Oldersma had access to the archives of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). Jo Wardenier claimed to have been in the resistance. In the pre-internet period, Lourens searched the standard work of Lou de Jong: The Kingdom of the Netherlands in World War II. The name Wardenier is not mentioned there.

The NIOD turned out to have information about Wardenier. Contrary to what he claimed, he was not a resistance hero at all. On the contrary: Wardenier had entered German service under a pseudonym and had fought twice on the Eastern Front.


“It’s clear: he has fantasized everything together,” says Lourens Oldersma, more than thirty years later, by telephone from Leeuwarden. “It’s a nice story of a simple boy who claimed to have discovered something spectacular.”

At that time the Oldersma brothers were still in the Leeuwarder Courant, but it never came to a book or a television program. Because the Wardenier case had just appeared, and another book about this inventor or charlatan would be a bit too much.

According to Oldersma, Ymker’s work is mainly about the many rumours. “There are still people who believe that big capital is behind it. They think that it is a conspiracy and that the engine has therefore become nothing. ”

Another loose point: nowhere in the archives is where Jo Wardenier is buried. On July 27, 1960, at the age of 47, he died of kidney poisoning in a hospital in Meppel, childless and fairly unexpected. But his grave is not in any archive.

Eventually Ymker managed to trace the son of the sexton of the Dutch Reformed Church in Steenwijkerwold. Bertus van Drogen is now almost eighty. When he was twenty he dug the grave for Jo Wardenier, on a lawn opposite a morgue. It is not marked. There is no zerk, no administration. Only the oral tradition that shows Wardenier’s final resting place.

“Philips did buy a patent”

Ymker’s latest discovery is also an oral testimony. Philips has always denied having anything to do with Wardenier, let alone having bought something from him. But recently Ymker was with a former project leader from Philips, which he tracked down. George Neelen, 88, seriously ill and confined to bed, told Ymker that Philips did buy a patent from Wardenier in 1957. It related to a so-called cold gas cooling machine.

“Philips thought it would be possible to use the Wardenier idea again,” Neelen told Ymker, who was sitting by his bedside. “But that never happened.”

Is Wardenier a genius or a fantasist? Ymker has tried to illuminate all sides, he says in the theater foyer. Of course a lot will be made up. It’s a long time ago. Fact and fiction merge. But if he has to choose? Ymker shrugs. He does not know.

But he knows: it is a beautiful story.

The mystery Wardenier is performed from Wednesday 15 May to Saturday 18 May in theater De Meenthe in Steenwijk. Possibly the piece will be performed again this fall. In the multifunctional building Hoogthij in Steenwijkerwold there is an exhibition about the life of Jo Wardenier from 16 May to 1 July.



Jo had worked in a rusk factory and when he was not yet eighteen a wrapping machine for the rusk rolls was built

“I have made an invention that will cause a major change in motor skills” • Jo Wardenier


Wardenier, then 22, received a private secretary for the incoming mail and an arms license. It was a great invention: you never knew who would approach it.

After a week

Wardenier released from the clinic. When he arrived home, his wonder engine is gone.

“The engine just had to disappear” • Jo Wardenier

Henk Ymker.foto: city and region

“He has fantasized everything together” • Archivist Lourens Oldersma. In the eighties, he did a study of Jo Wardenier with his brother Folkert


July 27, 1960
Jo Wardenier died at the age of 47 in a hospital in Meppel from kidney poisoning.



Johannes Wardenier

Recorded in a “madhouse”.

Born in Overijssel on 1912 and died in 1960. He was of simple descent and farmer’s son. In Wolvega (Friesland) there were plans to build a factory for its fuel-poor engine. Johannes Wardenier was taken to a “madhouse” in Groningen and when he came home to his parents his invention was taken. By who? High lords of the Philips and the Batavian Petroleum Company are concerned …..

In the war years he was bought loose from Philips (Frits Philips)

Philips bought the idea of ​​the fuelless (fuel poor) engine from Johannes Wardenier from Steenwijkerwold in 1957 to keep it out of the market. This is claimed by an 88-year-old former employee of Philips, chief engineer George Neelen, against journalist and writer Henk Ymker from Steenwijk. Ymker spoke to the seriously ill former employee last (05-2019)

Personally as a fan of Johannes I do not believe John would never be able to pay for a Patent / Patent in 1934. A patent will also come in 1934 or thereafter. That special from …. national engineers.

The benefits for the existence of the Johannes Wardenier genius and the fuel-free engine are piling up, says Henk Ymker. However, the Philips company continues to deny. Johannes Wardenier did not live he was freed by Philips from a camp in good welfare. He would check periodically.

The invention was world news in 1934 and a solution for the high unemployment rate in the region at the time, but ended in a drama and mystery. The engine disappeared, accepted the drawings and other evidence. The testimony now that the engine is indeed a patent has been purchased from Philips.

Wardenier became world famous in one fell swoop (Photo: from the book Het Mysterie Wardenier)

Steenwijker Ymker released an experienced updated version of his book The Mystery Wardenier, fantastic genius or a brilliant fantasist? He wrote that book about the inventor from Steenwijkerwold in the 1980s, but the ‘drama of the engine’ and the new stories that unleashed decades of deciding led Ymker to publish a new book.


Ymker spoke to the seriously ill former employee of Philips last Thursday by chance. A man from Norg knows the former employee of Philips well and brought them into contact with each other. The former employee, engineer George Neelen, was a project manager at Philips and worked on the development of the Stirling engine. The engine of Johannes Wardenier from Steenwijkerwold would have been one of the sources of inspiration.

The same Meelen wrote in a magazine that I read myself (1967) that since 1935 the Stirling type has been complicated by Philips. Perhaps Johannes Wardenier’s idea was a beautiful gift from “heaven” …

ON 07-11-1934 Arrived under pressure from Hendrik Colijn and Detering (Shell) that the Wardenier killing had to be nipped in the bud. Wardenier was declared “crazy” and is being held hostage for days among government guards in Groningen.

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

One Comment

  1. Have done a lot of research actually in 2019. When somebody has materials, informations, pictuires or secrets to show, please contact me. Later on want publish a new book about Johannes Wardenier.

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