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August 17, 1915 – The electric starter is patented

The name Charles Kettering may not ring any bells unless you are familiar with Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, but this US inventor is the man you can thank for your car being so easy to start. On this day in 1911 he received US Patent #1150523, the electric starting motor for the automobile. 

Kettering didn’t exactly invent the automatic starter, but he did make it work for cars of the era. Early automobiles required a person to hand crank the motor to start it. Incidents often led to broken hands, wrists or even shoulders, but one accident was much worse. Byron Carter, the founder of Cartercar, came across a stranded motorist in Detroit during the winter of 1908. When the driver forgot to retard the spark the crank kicked back and broke Carter’s jaw. Due to complications with the injury, Carter developed pneumonia, which eventually killed him. Cadillac chief Henry Leland heard the news and became distraught, as Carter was a close friend to him. 

Above: Charles Kettering
Top: A 1912 Cadillac Model 30, from the first year the electric ignition

The first car with an electric starter

He put his team to work to develop a safe self starting mechanism. The engineers were able to do so, but it was too large to be of any practical use on an automobile. At this point Leland got a hold of Kettering, who was working at Delco, asking him to help improve upon the design. With his help, the team was able to meet their deadline of February 1911, which led to the June patent filing and the introduction of the self starter on 1912 Cadillacs.

Kettering further developed the basic automotive electrical system that is still widely used today. He designed the system to serve several purposes; to start the car, to generate electricity while it was running, and to produce spark for ignition and current for lighting. By the time Kettering died on November 25 1958 in Dayton, Ohio, he held 186 US patents. He also earned a spot on the cover of Time Magazine on January 9, 1933.

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