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.
A modest start
I don’t recall the size of our Delco-Light plant, but I doubt if it was large enough to provide lights in our barn, which was a good distance from the house. A typical Delco plant put out a total of 750 watts at full load, which would have been enough to light 15 50-watt bulbs, or a combination of fewer lights plus an appliance or two.
The 750-watt plant had a 1-1/2 hp, single-cylinder, air-cooled engine with a 5-gallon gasoline tank; a separate 6-volt battery was necessary for the starting engine. Unless electric usage was very high, the engine probably ran only once every day or so; Delco advertising claimed that under “normal usage” engine life was 42 years.
Apparently Delco salesmen, their vehicles equipped with a portable Delco-Light plant system wired to a few lights, a water pump and a coffee maker, would visit a farm at dusk. After lighting up the barnyard and pumping some water, they would brew up coffee, hand ’round steaming mugs of the stuff and, hopefully, get the farmer to sign on the dotted line. If that succeeded, the farm wife was shown the many appliances available to work with the system.
The price of progress
Kettering sold Delco to General Motors in 1918 and became head of General Motors Research, a position he held until retirement in 1947. Invention of the radio, along with development of the Delco-made Frigidaire (both during the 1920s), undoubtedly helped drive up demand for Delco plants; in 1928 GM informed its shareholders that more than 350,000 Delco-Light plants had been sold and the future looked bright.
However, in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration, “to carry electricity to as many farms as possible in the shortest possible time and have it used in quantities sufficient to affect rural life.” The 1936 Rural Electrification Act provided funds. During the next two years 100,000 miles of power lines were built at a cost of $210 million ($3.5 billion today) to provide electricity to 220,000 farms at a cost of about $950 ($15,816 today) each.
I don’t know how my parents came up with that $950, but we did get electricity in 1938; probably my grandfather financed it. The Delco plant was sold to a neighbor who lived a mile or two down the road and who probably wouldn’t get electricity for a while, or maybe he didn’t have the money for it. My last memory of our old Delco system is of that neighbor dragging the cement pad upon which the generator/engine set was mounted up the dirt road behind his 1937 Ford car.
Of course, Delco continued on as a part of GM for many years, but many other light plant and appliance manufacturers (as well as the folks who installed and maintained the systems) either went out of business or switched to other products or lines of work. I guess that’s the price of progress.
Anyone else out there remember those long ago days before electricity? FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more stories about Delco in Getting a Charge out of Delco Generators and Childhood Memories: Delco Light Plants and School in the 1940s.