As automobiles became more commonplace in the early 1900s, increased engine size made hand cranking an even more physically demanding endeavor. It was so difficult that it gave rise to a new term to describe a person’s mood when dealing with the struggle and frustration of starting an internal combustion engine—"cranky."
A Ford assembly line with a worker attaching a gas tank, c. 1919. Courtesy Getty Images.
Before electric self-starters, motorists manually engaged the crankshaft—the part of the engine that changes the up and down motion of the pistons into rotation. This was done by turning the crank handle, located at the front of the car—a metal bar bent at 90° at two points.
Lewis Reed hand cranking an old car, 1913. Montgomery County (Maryland) Historical Society photo archives.
This hand-crank method was commonly used to start engines, but it was inconvenient, difficult, and dangerous. Although drivers were advised to cup their fingers under the crank and pull up, it felt natural for operators to grasp the handle with fingers on one side and the thumb on the other. The behavior of an engine during starting was not always predictable. The engine could kick back, causing a sudden reverse rotation. In the event of a kickback, the reverse rotation of the engine could engage the starter, causing the crank to unexpectedly and violently jerk, striking and injuring the operator. Even a simple backfire could result in a broken thumb; it was possible to end up with a broken wrist, or worse.
Ford Publication c. 1910. From the Collections of the Henry Ford.
The frequency with which accidents occurred lead to the development of new terminologies for these injuries. In 1904, the French surgeon Just Lucas-Championnière coined the term “chauffer fracture” to identify the occupational origin of this isolated fracture typically caused by a direct blow to the radial aspect of the wrist.
Chauffeur fracture (backfire fracture).Frontal radiograph of the wrist shows a vertical fracture of the radial styloid process (arrows). US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
While the need was fairly obvious—as early as 1899, Clyde J. Coleman applied for a U.S. Patent for an electric automobile self-starter—the impetus for the electric starter is said to have grown from a tragedy. In 1908, in Belle Isle, Michigan, Byron T. Carter, a friend of Henry Leland—founder of the Cadillac Motor Company— tried to crank a stalled car for a female motorist. The engine kicked back and the flying crank broke Carter’s jaw. Sadly, gangrene set in and Carter died later that year.
Upon hearing of the incident, Henry Leland urged his engineers to find a safer alternative to the cranking handle. When the Cadillac engineers could not find a solution, Leland invited Charles F. Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (DELCO) to resolve the issue—Kettering had developed an electric spark ignition for Cadillac in 1910. The starter followed Kettering’s earlier model of an electric motor for cash registers—which also replaced a hand crank in that application.
Cadillac installed the first electric starters on its production models beginning in 1912. The operator engaged the starter with a foot pedal. The starter motor served double duty as a generator charging the car’s battery, supplying juice for the Model 30’s electric lights, and its electric ignition system—all of which were cutting-edge for the day.
Courtesy the United States Patent and Trademarks Office
The self-starter became a standard feature of every automobile because of its universal utility. The Ford Motor Company was the last hold-out, with the 1919 Model T being the last production model to feature a hand crank. By 1920, most manufacturers included self-starters in all production models, ensuring that anyone, regardless of strength, could easily start a car with an internal combustion engine.
Cadillac Model 30, 1912. Courtesy General Motors.
You can see a number of hand-cranked vehicles and learn more about technology and innovation in the automobile industry during a docent-led tour of the Car and Carriage Museum beginning in June 2019.
Penn Motor Car Company, Pittsburgh PA. Penn ‘30” Touring, 1911. Frick Art & Historical Center, 1999.1.7. Gift of G. Whitney Snyder.
Buick Motor Company, Flint, MI. Model 10 Runabout, 1908. Frick Art & Historical Center, 2009.1.1. Gift of Sam McClung.
Ford Motor Company, Detroit, MI. Model T Touring, 1914. Frick Art & Historical Center, 1999.1.9. Gift of Sam McClung.
Admission to the Car and Carriage Museum is free.