I was trying to find out why early cars had 6 volt electrical systems. I could not find out why the industry started with 6 volt but did find that the switch to 12 volt was caused by increased use of electrical accessories. The only thing I could find is that a wet cell produces 2.1 volt per cell so a 6 volt system has three cells. Two cells may not have been enough, and three cells were adequate so we defaulted into 6 volt systems. But that’s my speculation. And then there was positive vs. negative ground? That’s for another discussion. In trying to answer the 6 volt question I did find a lot of information about early auto accessories. Did you know that electric starters were the result of an accidental death of a friend of the head of Cadillac?
Early cars had no electrical systems other than a magneto and some sort of distributer to control the spark. Nothing else used electricity. No lights, no horn, no windshield wiper, no turn signal, and no cigarette lighter. Even the windshield didn’t exist. All of these were first introduced as an available accessory but soon became a necessity. Let’s look at the history of some of these “Accessories” that we wouldn’t think of buying a car without.
We will start with headlights. Early cars were quite literally horseless carriages. And if you wanted to drive your buggy at night you equipped it with the latest lighting technology. First candles and then kerosene lights and about the time cars were becoming popular carbide or acetylene lights were being used. Some of these lights were detachable and could be used as a work light while repairing the car on the road. The first electric headlight was introduced in 1898 by the Columbia Electric Car Co. Since it was an electric car access to the electricity was easy. These lights were brighter than the carbide lights and were soon adopted by the gas powered car builders. The lights were driven by early dry cell technology but soon were replaced by rechargeable wet cell batteries. The battery had to be removed from the car to be recharged. These lights were bright enough that they would “blind” oncoming vehicles. The problem was solved in 1915 by a third party accessory provider the Guide Lamp Co. They set the lights on vertical swivels. But you had to stop the car and lower or raise them manually. In 1917 Cadillac offered an “Automated” version. The lights were mounted on a bar that could be pivoted from the steering column. In 1925 the Guide Lamp Co. introduced the two filament headlight bulb. No, the switch was not on the floor but on the steering column. In 1927 the dimmer switch was moved to the floor to the left of the drivers footwell. The last vehicle I had with a floor dimmer switch was a 1987 Bronco. For some reason every manufacturer went back to the steering wheel. Every once in a while I find myself pounding the floor with my left foot to dim my lights!
Back to the electric starter. Attempts to start a car using something other than a hand crank were tried but never were reliable. The invention of the electric starter has an interesting story. In the winter of 1910, a woman in Belle Island Michigan (Detroit) stalled her Cadillac on a bridge. She was not strong enough to crank the car herself, so she was stranded until a good Samaritan came along in the person of Byron T. Carter driving his own Cadillac. Carter was a close friend of the head of Cadillac, Henry M. Leland. Curtis proceeded to start the car, but the lady forgot to retard the spark and the engine backfired throwing the crank up into Mr. Carters jaw severally injuring him. The next people by the bridge was still another Cadillac (This is starting to sound like a story made up by the Cadillac PR Dept.) carrying Ernest Sweet and William Foltz. They were two Engineers from Cadillac. They successfully started the car and rushed Mr. Carter to a physician. Mr. Carter died of complications a few weeks later.
Leland was devastated and charged a group of his engineers with finding a way to get rid of the hand crank. “The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it!” he is quoted as saying. The engineers were unable to come up with a good design, so they contacted Charles F. Kettering of DELCO (this was 1910. GM had bought Cadillac the year before but did not acquire DELCO until 1916.) Kettering had a solution. It was a combination starting motor and generator. It would start the car and then run as a generator to charge the battery. I had a 1974 CASE lawn tractor that had a starter generator. It looked like a generator because it wasn’t geared to the flywheel like a starter. It was belted to a single cylinder Kohler engine and was positioned like a generator. Kettering’s model was geared to the flywheel.
The starter was introduced in the 1912 model Cadillacs BUT the GM executives didn’t trust it so it also came with a crank. GM enjoyed a sales boom. As the popularity of battery/generator/starters crew they soon replaced the old magneto systems and that allowed all sorts of new electrical accessories to be added. In 1911 only 19 manufacturers offered electric start. By the 1924 New York Auto Show 110 of the 119 vehicles shown were equipped with battery/generator/starter systems. Like the dimmer switch the starter originally was on the dash but somehow it found its way to the floor. Many of us can remember the starter button high and to the right of the gas pedal. It was an operation for a one man band. Right hand on the choke, left foot on either the clutch or the brake and the right heel on the gas while your right toe engaged the starter. Did you ever have to ask your girlfriend to move away from your so you could start the car?
Now that a system was available to provide reliable electric current a flood of electrical accessories became available, But that’s all for next time. In the meantime, if your antique car doesn’t have a crank and you’d like to try one. Come on over, my 1954 MG has one and I have the crank. No, I’ve never tried it, I like the way my thumb and fingers are attached! And now that I know about Byron Carter, NO WAY!