The Delco-Light Plant
Charles F. Kettering’s Delco-Light plant brought electric lights to farms and rural dwellers.
A poster that attempts to shame the farmer into buying a Delco-light plant to make his wife's job easier.
Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore
One of my very earliest memories, from probably 1938, is of looking out a window of our Pennsylvania farmhouse and seeing a man atop a high pole that had been recently placed. I was told the man was connecting our electricity. I don’t, however, recall being terribly excited by the news because we had electric lights prior to that. You see, in one corner of our dirt-floored cellar was a bank of big glass storage batteries connected to a black Delco-Light plant.
Prolific inventor for Delco
Charles F. Kettering was born on a Loudonville, Ohio, farm in 1876. Mechanically inclined and a good student, he worked his way through Ohio State University, earning an electrical engineering degree. After joining National Cash Register (NCR) in Dayton as an experimental engineer, he developed the first electric cash register.
While helping a friend build a car, Kettering perfected the high-tension automotive ignition system, a huge improvement over the old low-tension systems then in use. In 1909, he left NCR and, along with two others, started Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco). Kettering was a prolific inventor; while producing ignition systems for Cadillac, he came up with a dependable electric starter for car engines. The 1912 Cadillac was the first car that didn’t need to be hand-cranked to start.
Seizing a market for electric lights
Although electric lights were commonly used in cities, and many city residents enjoyed indoor plumbing, things were different in the country. Kettering turned his attention to the millions of farms that still relied on oil lamps and lanterns, hand water pumps and outhouses.
In 1916, Delco introduced the Delco-Light system. Delco offered 25 models of generator sets capable of producing 500 to 3,000 watts of power. Even small towns that were beyond the reach of electric main lines were served by Delco-Light plants.
The large lead-acid storage batteries had clear glass cases and were arranged in banks of 16, usually on two shelves along a wall. Each battery put out 1-1/2 volts and the 16 batteries were wired in a series to provide the 32 volts of direct current necessary for the system. The batteries required periodic maintenance to make sure the water and acid levels were kept up to specification.
Beside the batteries sat the combination generator and engine set. When the charge in the batteries dropped below a preset level, the engine would start automatically and then shut off when the batteries signaled they were fully charged. All the owner needed to do was to keep the fuel tank full and the oil level in the engine up to the mark. I’m sure the spark plug required cleaning from time to time, and the oil would have needed periodic changing, but the operation was largely automatic.
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