The History of the Starter Motor

The History of the Starter Motor
April 10 09:49 2017 Print This Article

Even if you’ve been driving for a long time, the chances are that you’ll be unaware of exactly what goes on underneath the hood every time you sit down in the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition. The ‘starter motor’ is a device that’s hugely important to getting your car going in a hurry – and without one, your driving experience is likely to be more than a little annoying and dissatisfying.

The development of the starter motor was a crucial step in getting the motor-car popular and widely-sold. After all, who wants to get out and crank the engine by hand, risking injury and inconvenience in the process?

Let’s take a look at how the starter motor first came to be, and how it’s developed since then.

Early beginnings

The starter motor first came to be in 1911, thanks to an American inventor named Charles F. Kettering, a founder of Delco whose other inventions included leaded gasoline. Up until this point, cars and trucks needed to be cranked by hand in order to start. This was inconvenient, for one thing, but it was also highly dangerous. If the motor kicked back during start-up, the crank would suddenly spin back in the opposite direction. A steady string of broken thumbs and wrists were causing early-adopters of motorcar technology to lose their livelihoods, and so a solution had to be devised.

One incident in 1908 provided a stark illustration of the problem. The founder of Cartecar, Bryon Carter, offered his help to a stricken woman whose Cadillac had stalled. The engine kicked back and Carter broke his jaw. This injury was then complicated when Carter developed pneumonia.

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When Carter later died of his injury, the motoring community was distraught. The head of Cadillac, Henry Leland, had been a friend of Cater. He vowed that no-one else would die as a result of this design flaw.

The Cadillac engineers started work immediately on an electric starter-motor. Their early efforts, however, were too large and cumbersome to be installed into a car. It was at this point that Leland called on Kettering to aid in the design and production. The deadline for the device was February 1911, and everyone was forced to work long hours in order to meet it.

Kettering’s contribution to the project was devising a system with three functions. It would provide a means of turning the engine; it would provide a spark to ignite the fuel in the cylinders; and it would provide a means of lighting the headlamps. Leland approved what the design team came up with, and promptly commissioned 12,000 self-starting components.

Kettering would go on to become head of research at General Motors. He would appear on the front cover of TIME magazine; develop a form of winged bomb named the Kettering Missile; and contribute enormously to the dispersal of lead fumes into the atmosphere.

What do electric starter motors look like now?

Today, the electric starter motor is actuated using an electromagnet called a solenoid. This magnet helps to draw two contacts together as quickly as possible, thereby preventing a dangerous arcing spark between the two. Once the electric motor is activated, the attached pinion is drawn into the flywheel of the adjacent engine.

Of course, the starter motor itself is unable to turn at the same speed of the engine itself, and so the pinion must be withdrawn from the flywheel to prevent damage being inflicted. This is solved in one of two ways. The pinion is either mounted around a threaded rod, which forces it back out of alignment when it reaches a certain speed. This is an approach which works well, but which can result in damage to the pinion and flywheel assembly. A better approach is to use a magnet to drag the pinion in and out of alignment along a series of straight grooves. This way the starter motor is slightly more complex – but it’ll mean less wear-and-tear, and therefore greater longevity in the long run. Even the sturdiest component won’t survives being forced into and yanked out of the flywheel repeatedly.

Where can I get an electric starter motor?

You can buy starter motors online to suit a wide range of vehicles. Whether you’re looking for Audi, BMW or Ford starter motors, the best place to start looking is almost always a specialist retailer who’ll be able to advise you on exactly the right component for the vehicle under current consideration.

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