June 15, 1911 – The electric starter is patented

The name Charles Kettering may not ring any bells unless you went to Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, but this US inventor is the man you can thank for your car being so easy to start. It was on this day in 1911 he filed for 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 in order to get it started. 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

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. The system was designed 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. Kettering held 186 US patents and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on January 9, 1933. He passed away November 25, 1958 in Dayton, Ohio.

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