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The first Automotive Electrical Starter

Before the advent of the starter motor, engines were started by various methods including wind-up springs, gunpowder cylinders, and human-powered techniques such as a removable crank handle which engaged the front of the crankshaft, pulling on an airplane propeller, or pulling a cord that was wound around an open-face pulley.

The hand-crank was the most commonly used method to start engines, but it was inconvenient, difficult, and dangerous.  The behavior of an engine during starting is not always predictable.  Even though cranks had an overrun mechanism, when the engine started, the crank could begin to spin along with the crankshaft and potentially strike the person cranking the engine.  Additionally, care had to be taken to retard the spark in order to prevent backfiring; causing the engine to run in a reverse direction, pulling the crank with it, because the overrun safety mechanism works in one direction only.

Users were also advised to cup their fingers and thumb under the crank and pull up.  However operators would more often grasp the handle with the fingers on one side, the thumb on the other.  Thus even a simple backfire could result in a broken thumb; a broken wrist; or a dislocated shoulder.

The first electric starter was installed on an Arnold, an adaptation of the Benz Velo, built in 1896 in East Peckham, England, by electrical engineer H. J. Dowsing.  In 1903, Clyde J. Coleman invented and patented the first electric starter in America U.S. Patent 0,745,157. Both designs proved to be unsatisfactory.

In 1911, Charles F. Kettering, with Henry M. Leland, of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO), invented and filed U.S. Patent 1,150,523 for an electric starter.  (Kettering had replaced the hand crank on NCR's cash registers with an electric motor five years earlier.)  One aspect of the invention lay in the realization that a relatively small motor, driven with higher voltage and current could be feasible, for a short time of operation, would deliver enough power to crank the engine for starting.

This starter design was first installed by Cadillac on production models in 1912.  The starter also worked as generators once the engine was running. Cadillac’s implementation of the electric starter motor as standard equipment on the 1912 Model 30, made it possible to turn over an automobile engine without fear of getting TKO’d by the hand crank in the event of backfire or kickback.

In fact, the danger of starting a car engine by hand is what spurred Cadillac to adopt electric starters in the first place.  In the winter of 1908, a woman stalled her Cadillac in Belle Island, Michigan, and didn’t have the strength to crank the car over.  Another driver, Byron Carter (founder of CarterCar) happened along and offered to start the stalled Cadillac.  Carter was also a friend of Cadillac founder Henry Leland.  When Carter turned the stalled Cadillac’s crank, the engine reportedly backfired, the crank hit him in the face and broke his jaw. Tragically, gangrene set in, and Carter died later that year.  Carter’s death allegedly made Leland decide that Cadillac would rid its cars of the hand starter crank. So he called on Charles Kettering and Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co.  DELCO had already developed a high-energy spark ignition for Cadillac that had debuted in 1910.

Kettering wasn’t totally in the dark when he started the project.  He had the idea for a self-starter before Leland approached him.  The issue with electricity was size.  The battery and starter each had to fit in a car.  If an electric motor had enough torque for the initial burst of power to start up an engine, the motor likely would be bigger than the engine itself.  Kettering knew he would have to shrink whatever device he came up with.  On Christmas Eve 1910, Kettering’s test of a battery and a starter finally worked.  Yet, when a 1912 Cadillac arrived at his lab in Dayton, Ohio, Kettering’s starter wouldn’t fit.  So once again, Kettering had to make the invention smaller.  He also faced a deadline imposed by Leland on Feb. 10, 1911: If the project wasn’t done before Leland left for Bermuda in one week, the plug would be pulled on the self-starter.  In the end, Kettering and his staff got the job done.  Kettering personally drove the car with the self-starter to a train station, where it would be shipped to Detroit, reportedly stopping and starting nearly every block on the way to make sure it worked.  Leland was pleased with the product and ordered 12,000 units.  Customers were immediately drawn to the new way to start a car.  Cadillac was awarded the 1912 Dewar Trophy from the Royal Automobile Club of England for the starter and ignition.