There are a lot of components of cars that we take for granted these days, and the electric self-starter is one of them. Its inventor, Charles Franklin Kettering, was born on this day in 1876, with his self-starter being patented in 1915.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
Basically, the electric self-starter means that your car can start with the turn of a key or the press of a button. Back in the day, you’d have to crank on an engine manually to get it fired up. Not only was it an exhausting endeavor, but it was a dangerous one. If your arms didn’t tire out and you didn’t get nicked by a spark, you were having a good day.
That is, essentially, where the idea of the electric self-starter came from. Henry Leland, the man tasked with running Cadillac, lost a friend in 1910. That friend, Byron Carter, had stopped to help a woman restart her stalled Cadillac because she didn’t have the strength to crank it herself — a common issue for women of the day. But when Carter tried, the engine backfired. The iron crank he was using to kick it back to life broke Carter’s jaw, which got infected. He came down with sepsis, and he died.
For Leland, that was unacceptable. A mechanism on one of his cars killed one of his friends. That’s when he reached out to Charles Franklin Kettering.
Kettering had already made a name for himself making electric motors for cash registers, and he’d developed a business dedicated to making automobile parts. It made sense that Leland would reach out to Kettering.
Instead of trying to just solve one problem at a time, which was difficult in an era where electricity was still in its crawling stages, Kettering looked at it with an eagle-eyed perspective. A DC starter motor, he found, could also be used as a generator to keep the engine running. His system could spin to start the engine, provide spark for ignition, and make enough electrical power for lighting and recharging the battery. That same principal remains to this day.
The system was installed on the 1912 Cadillac, and Kettering patented it in 1915.
The self-starter completely changed automotive culture in the United States. Where the crank engine required a serious amount of body strength, the self-starter could pretty much be operated by anyone, which meant car ownership and driving could be undertaken by more and more people — including women. Easily-accessible and easily-used cars made it possible for women to become more active and equal members of society.
Kettering obtained 186 patents in his lifetime, but not all of them are remembered as fondly as the electric self-starter. He’s the guy that invented Freon refrigerant, which was found to deplete the atmosphere’s ozone layer, and leaded gasoline.
He also invented Duco lacquers and enamels, which became the first mass-produced paint for automobiles, and the “Bug” aerial torpedo. He also helped advance the two-stroke diesel engines used in locomotive and heavy equipment industries, developed a portable lighting and incubator system for premature infants, and helped bring electricity to rural areas far from the electric grid. His name now dons Kettering University as a way to honor his legacy.