Innovation Put an End to the Hand-Crank Era

Claimed to be the “greatest single invention ever devised for tractors,” the Christensen self-starter made a possibly dangerous task safer and simpler.

| May 2019

Ford tractor demonstration between 1921 and 1922. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Anyone who collects antique tractors has spent time hand-cranking a recalcitrant engine. Some have even experienced the dreaded scenario where an ill-timed engine will “kick back,” causing a broken arm (or worse).

Even though inventors tried to develop mechanical self-starters using springs, compressed air and other ideas, until 1912 most all cars, trucks and tractors were crank-started. Not only were many folks injured, but it was widely believed that hand-starting prevented the “delicate” fair sex from driving.

In April 1908, Byron J. Carter, founder of the Cartercar and a friend of old, white-bearded Henry Leland, the boss of Cadillac, died of pneumonia. It’s been widely reported in the automotive press ever since that Carter’s illness was triggered by a chivalrous deed.

The story goes that on a snowy day a month or so prior to his death, Carter came across a woman driving a Cadillac that had stalled and he stopped to help. While he was cranking the car, it kicked back. The crank caught Carter in the jaw, breaking it. He never recovered, developing the pneumonia from which he died. His death from a crank-start kickback, especially on a Cadillac car, supposedly goaded his friend, Leland, to do something to solve the problem.

Couldn’t work – but it did

While that story may or may not be true, Leland was concerned about engine kickbacks injuring people. He contacted Charles Kettering to develop an electric starting motor and equip a Cadillac with the device. In that era, electric motor and storage battery technology was still sketchy. Experts from Westinghouse, General Electric and the German firm of Siemens & Halske all said the idea wouldn’t work.


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