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Tech Talk: Electric starter marks a century

Innovation assured future of internal combustion for decades to come

Published September 21, 2012

More than a century after the onset of the automobile age, several of today’s automakers have already celebrated their 100th anniversaries — such well-known brands as Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford and Rolls-Royce among them.

But one of the most significant centennials in automotive history has gone largely unheralded.

It was 100 years ago this year that the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition became the first production car to offer an electric starter motor.

That device, for which we now seldom spare a thought unless it malfunctions, changed the course of automotive history.

Ironically, the advent of the electric starter sounded the death knell for the electric vehicle (until its recent resurrection) and assured that the internal combustion (IC) engine would become the dominant automotive powerplant for a century to come.

In those early days, the jury was still out on whether electric, gasoline or steam power was best suited for use in an automobile. Sentiment had by then tilted toward the IC engine, but the development of the electric starter sealed the deal.

It also democratized the whole concept of driving, which had until then been restricted to those with the muscle to hand-crank the day’s cantankerous engines into life.

“Within a few years, Cadillac featured women in their advertising showing them as drivers, instead of passengers or bystanders,” explained Greg Wallace, director of the General Motors Heritage Center.

Strange as it may seem now, the electric starter was also considered a safety feature. Before its introduction, the accepted means of starting an engine was to rotate its crankshaft using a hand crank and therein lay multiple opportunities for mayhem and bodily harm.

“Hand cranking was the No. 1 injury risk in those early days of the automobile,” according to Wallace.

It was quite common for a crank to “kick back” under the compression forces acting on the pistons or due to backfire. Similarly, in some cases the crank failed to disengage as it was intended to do when the engine fired, whipping it around at a ferocious rate.

The result, not surprisingly, was an epidemic of finger-and-thumb, wrist, arm and shoulder injuries associated with the task of starting an automobile.

Add to that risk the prospect of forgetting to put the transmission in neutral and being run over by your own car, or simply cranking yourself to exhaustion or heart attack when the engine refused to start.

The term “cranky” is said to originate with just such balky engines.

The electric starter also enabled other technical advances. Given the impact of compression pressures on the force required to turn a crank, they had to be limited to what was physically possible to overcome.

Eliminating that constraint permitted compression ratios and with them both power and efficiency, to be increased up to the limits of the period’s material and fuel characteristics.

The idea of using electric power or some other means to replace human effort for cranking an engine was not a new one, even then.

According to automotive historian G.N. Georgano, the first electric starter was installed on an Arnold automobile in England by an electrical engineer named H. J. Dowsing in 1896.

The first official acknowledgement of the concept was a patent filed in the U.S. by Clyde J. Coleman in 1899 and granted in 1903. But that device was apparently unworkable, at least in terms of mass production.

Enter Henry Leland, the dynamic and demanding founder of Cadillac (and later Lincoln). According to some reports, a friend of Leland had died as a result of injuries incurred while cranking a car.

Leland assigned the task of developing an electric starter to engineering whiz-kid, Charles F. Kettering of Dayton, Ohio.

Kettering, along with his partner, Edward A. Deeds, had established the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company in 1909 (later to become DELCO, which was purchased by General Motors in 1914).

That dynamic duo had already invented what became the high-voltage ignition system, which Leland was the first to adopt.

As a prior employee of the National Cash Register Company, Kettering had helped develop an electric device that replaced the hand crank for opening a cash-register drawer.

Recognizing that a low-voltage electric motor could operate at high current (and thus power) for a brief time, he combined that experience with Coleman’s earlier work to make a workable starter motor.

Kettering filed for a patent in 1911 and it was subsequently granted in 1915. In the meantime, Leland put the starter into production on the 2012 Cadillac — and changed the course of the entire auto industry.

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