Automobile History: Electrical System

Alessandro Volta
Alessandro Volta and his voltaic pile on display

When Alessandro Volta invented the storage battery in 1796, he had no idea he was inventing the modern automotive electrical system. Volta made his discovery 89 years before the first car was offered for public sale. It was another 25 years before the storage battery got even a passing nod from some automakers.

Between 1885 and 1910, most cars having gas engines did not need storage batteries because they had no devices that required electricity. Ignition was left to the nonelectrical hot tube; later to the magneto, which was a self-generating mechanism.

Until 1908, motorists warned pedestrians to “move it” by shouting or by pressing a pedal to clang a bell. Neither method was as raucous as the electric horn, which got its name, the Klaxon, from the Greek word¬†klaxo, meaning “to shriek.”

Between 1908 and 1911, the few autos that had Klaxons used dry cells to operate them. However, dry cells wore down quickly and had to be replaced, which was expensive.

By 1911, storage batteries had attained a degree of reliability exceeding that of dry cells; they lasted at least a month. Then, they could be recharged and put back into service, unlike dry cells, which were discarded. This degree of reliability was due in large measure to research and development done by the electric car industry, which needed good batteries so that its vehicles could compete with gas- and steam-engine models.

The few manufacturers who adapted the storage battery to work the Klaxon then looked around to see what else they could do with the excess current the storage battery provided — and found electric lights.

The first electric lights were introduced on the 1898 Columbia. This was an electric car with storage batteries. Manufacturers of cars with gas engines had another way to produce light. This was with the Prest-O-Lite tank, introduced in 1904. It was a steel cylinder containing pressurized acetylene gas that was fed to headlamps and ignited by flame.

Other manufacturers revived the dynamo, which had been around for some time. (Today we call the dynamo the generator, but in those days most called magnetos “generators.”) The battery then didn’t have to be taken out of the car every month for recharging.

A problem still presented by those first dynamo-equipped cars was battery overcharging. However, this trouble was resolved with the development of a variable speed regulator by DELCO. It was first used in the 1912 Cadillac, which displayed another feature that set the auto industry on its head: the self-starter.

Once they adopted the self-starter, auto manufacturers had to adopt the battery/generator system to work the starter. However, the system put out a much more current than the starter, lights and horn needed, and carmakers realized they could harness this current experience. and use it for igniting the fuel mixture. The magneto then became obsolete.

Self-starter beginnings

The self-starter came about by accident — literally. In the winter of 1910 on a wooden bridge on Belle Island Mich., a Cadillac driven by a woman stalled. Not having the strength to hand crank the engine herself, she was forced to wait on the bridge in the cold until help arrived.

In time another motorist, also driving a Cadillac, happened along. His name was Byron T. Carter, and he was a close friend of the head of Cadillac, Henry M. Leland. Carter offered to start the woman’s car, but she forgot to retard the spark and the engine backfired, and the crank flew off and struck Carter in the face, breaking his jaw.

Ironically, moments later another car carrying two Cadillac engineers, Ernest Sweet and William Foltz, came along. They started the woman’s car and rushed Carter to a physician, but complications set in and a few weeks later Carter died.

Leland was devastated. He called a special conference of his engineers and told them that finding a way to get rid of the hand crank was top priority.

“The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it,” he announced.

Self-starters for automobile engines had been tried in the past. Some were mechanical devices, some pneumatic and some electric.

But all attempts at finding a self-starter that was reliable, efficient and relatively small had failed.

When the Cadillac engineers could not come up with a workable system, the company invited Charles F. Kettering and his boys at DELCO (still independent of GM) to take a hand. Kettering presented the device in time for its introduction in the 1912 models.

The Kettering solution

Kettering’s unit was a combination starting motor and generator equipped with an overrunning clutch and reduction gear. Gear teeth engaged the flywheel to provide a reduction of about 25 to 1 between the starting motor and crankshaft, allowing sufficient torque to crank the engine successfully. GM brass didn’t trust the new system at first and demanded a backup magneto and hand crank.

As public confidence in the reliable battery/generator/self-starter system soared, it soon replaced the magneto in all GM cars. GM enjoyed a sales boom, and the remainder of the auto industry soon adopted the system. Of the 462 models shown at the 1911 New York Auto Show, only 19 had battery/generator systems, and they all had backup magnetos. Of 119 makes displayed at the 1924 New York Show, 110 had storage battery/generator systems and self-starters.

Other electric milestones

Here are some other electrical system “firsts”:

In 1915, the Forrest Co. of New York City thought it had found a better way to keep a storage battery filled with water. Called the 20th Century Automatic Water Filler, the device consisted of a one-pint aluminum water container screwed to the firewall. Water flowed from it through rubber tubes to the battery, which in those days was usually mounted beneath the front seat or floor. Water entered the battery through hard rubber caps that contained float valves to halt the flow when the cells were filled.

In 1939, the first sealed-beam headlamps were introduced.

During World War II, the military needed an electrical generating unit that could provide more current than the d.c. generator. They found it with the a.c. (alternating current) generator, commonly called the alternator.

In 1949, Chrysler Corp. became the first to offer a combination key-operated ignition and starter switch. Previously, the starter was operated by a separate button on the dash or by a button on the floor above the accelerator pedal. Starting a car with the floor mounted starter was sometimes a challenge: your left foot was on the brake pedal, heel of your right foot on the accelerator, and the toe of your right foot pushing on the starter. Don’t press down too hard on the accelerator or you will flood the engine, but be ready to give it some gas when the engine starts and you release the starter button.

In 1960, the alternator for civilian vehicles arrived none too soon: The number of electrical devices manufacturers put on cars by then began to strain the limits of the d.c. generator. The first car manufacturer to make the alternator available in a production vehicle was Chrysler Corporation in the 1960 Valiant using an alternator built by Essex. By 1961 all Chryslers had an alternator. In the following year GM had them, too.

In 1971, Pontiac introduced a completely sealed storage battery that required no water during its lifetime. It had side terminals that the company claimed stayed completely corrosion-free. In time, the battery was to be named the Freedom Battery.

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