Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars! This week’s question: What tragic event led to the development of the first production electric starter? If you think you know the answer, and aren’t feeling cranky, make the jump and see if you’re right. Today we generally take for granted the ease with which we are able to start our cars. All it usually takes is the twist of the key and then the car takes care of the rest, a solenoid shoving the electric starter’s gear into mesh with the one ringing the flywheel. At the same time the ignition system energizes, firing the plugs (or glowing the glow plugs in the case of certain diesels) and ultimately bringing the engine to life. It’s a beautiful ballet, but it wasn’t always so. The earliest automobiles, for all intents and purposes, had no electrical systems. Lighting was provided by the burning of acetylene gas, horns were honked by squeezing a rubber bulb, and spark was created through the use of a simple magneto. It was the starting however that proved both to be the most crude and dangerous. To get an early internal combustion engine firing, it was necessary to first get it spinning. That was typically accomplished through a manual crank connected to the end of the crankshaft. Considering the finicky nature of these early motors, this created the likelihood of the crank operator being injured if the car had been left in gear, or if a backfire or misfire caused the crank to suddenly snap out of a hand. In fact many broken arms resulted from attempts to start these cranky cars. It wasn’t a broken arm however, that was the impetus for the development and subsequent introduction of the electric starter by Cadillac in 1912, but a jaw. From bryant.edu:
The electric starter or self-starter was invented by Charles F. Kettering. It is often thought of as an invention of convenience, but it was also one of safety. In fact, the safety issue was the main reason that Kettering developed the device. Before the invention of the electric starter in 1911, automobiles had to be started using a handcrank. This device was usually located on the front of the car and required enormous amounts of efforts to turn. The device was also dangerous. Henry Leland, head of the Cadillac Motor Car Company, found this out the hard way. In 1910, a friend of Leland’s stopped to help a lady whose car had become stalled on Detroit’s Belle Isle Bridge. While trying to turn the crank, it kicked back, breaking the man’s jaw. He later died from the injury. Shocked from hearing the news, Leland told Kettering that if he could produce a self-starter, then he would use it in next year’s Cadillacs. Kettering and about a dozen assistants (known as the Barn Gang since they worked out of a barn) immediately set to work on this task. There had been many attempts at producing an electric starter before, but none of them were successful. Most designs at that time called for the use of an electric motor attached to the engine’s flywheel. However, in order to fit in the car’s engine compartment, the device would have to be small, and therefore it would be unable to produce a sufficient enough amount of torque. Kettering realized this and he also knew that the motor would only have to produce short bursts of power, rather than operate at normal speeds for extended lengths of time. With this in mind he created a powerful motor, that only produced this power for a short time. While the car was running, Kettering felt that the motor could also be geared down and act as a generator, thereby recharging the battery so that it would have enough power for the next start.
That friend of Henry Leyland was Byron Carter, founder in 1905 of the Cartercar Company. Carter had come across the woman stalled on the bridge. Being the gentleman he was, he offered to help her restart her car. While doing so the car backfired and the crank wrenched out of Carter’s hand striking him in the face and breaking his jaw. Gangrene set into the injury and Carter died just days later from pneumonia, a complication of these injuries. Image source: Union of Concerned Scientists