Hand Cranks Were Cranky

At first, all internal combustion engines needed to be cranked in order to start. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a common sight on roadsides to see a man turning a crank handle on the front of a car to get it going. The dangerous part was when the engine caught and the gears would grab the crank. This caused many injuries and some of them were fatal.

There is a story that may or may not be true, but it is believed that just such an injury may have led to the invention of the electric starter, at least in automobiles. According to legend, Byron J. Carter the owner of a car company and friend of Henry Leland, the owner of Cadillac, stopped to help a woman crank her car. The handle caught him in the mouth and broke his jaw. Carter was in bed for a month and died from pneumonia.

Leland was distraught at losing his friend and set to work inventing an electric starter. Electric motors were in their infancy and batteries were not strong, but Leland commissioned a design that eventually worked and was added to Cadillac models. By 1920, electric starters were standard equipment on passenger cars, larger machinery like tractors and trucks were a different story.

Larger engines still required hand cranking because the electric starter motors were delicate and couldn’t stand up to the bumps and jostling of farm fields and dirt roads. Hard use meant that engines had to be repaired frequently and services such as crankshaft grinding Phoenix AZ were much in demand.

Although there were experimental versions in the early teens, reliable electronic starters didn’t make it to tractors and trucks until the late 1930s. Until then, the sight of someone cranking a tractor engine was part of the rural landscape.

Crankshafts are an important part of any internal combustion engine, but they were dangerous back in the day. Injuries and death were sometimes the price of driving a vehicle.

Paul Petersen

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