Farm electric light & power plants

1916-1947

 
 

Fresh from his major accomplishments at National Cash Register and the breakthrough of his modern automotive electric system, Charles F. Kettering in 1912 received a telegram from a customer who owned a 1912 Cadillac and used his car to power the lights in his cottage. Inspired, Kettering set out to adapt the auto electric system to supply electric power to a home. The first prototype, completed in 1913, was given by Kettering to his mother for Christmas to power her farm.


In 1916, Kettering formed the Domestic Engineering Company to produce Delco-Light farm electric light and power plants to meet the burgeoning demand for flameless lighting, running water, and convenience appliances for rural homes, farms, businesses, schools, churches, resorts, small towns, and even yachts. Teaming with America’s leading battery manufacturer, he combined his state-of-the-art OHV engine direct connected to a generator/motor with an Exide Ironclad battery to essentially create a hybrid power plant. In addition to the power plant, Kettering both developed and arranged the production of compatible electric equipment and appliances, such as shallow and deep well pumps, lights, refrigerators, clothes washing machines, vacuums, kitchen appliances, and even portable power stands.


The first model and most popular was rated 850 watts and was an immediate success with 27,000 sold the first year. A large 3,000-watt model was added in 1918, and 600- and 1,250-watt variants of the 850-watt model were added soon thereafter. Delco-Light sales soared and the Dayton manufacturing plant rapidly grew. The Delco-Light distribution and sales network consequently geared up to meet this growing demand, including targeting export markets. By the end of 1921, there were 25 models ranging from 500 to 3,000 watts. The company’s market share reached more than 50 percent, with sales surpassing 175,000 units. By this time, it’s estimated that about 50 companies competed in the farm electric plant market, including two wind charger companies. Some of these other notable manufacturers were Kohler, Onan, Westinghouse, Allis-Chalmers, Fairbanks-Morse, Willys, Stearns, and Western Electric. Associated manufacturers of batteries and electrical appliances numbered in the hundreds and an extensive sales, installation, and service network existed throughout the United States. The total employment in farm electric plant industry was now in the tens of thousands across the nation.


In 1920, Charles Kettering was tapped by Alfred Sloan to head up General Motors Corporation’s research laboratory. Delco-Light became a GM subsidiary in the process. The next 10 years saw increased sales growth, plus production, of the successful and profitable Frigidaire refrigerator at the Delco-Light plant in Dayton. The small electric plants were redesigned and improved in 1928 and a large unit powered by a new 4 cylinder air-cooled engine was added. This large engine was developed by Kettering for Chevrolet, but proved unsuccessful for auto application in a small demonstration fleet of vehicles.


In May 1929, Sloan in a letter to General Motors shareholders boasted that Delco-Light sales surpassed 325,000 units and envisioned a market potential of 2.5 million units. Soon thereafter, Delco-Light and the home appliance production were moved to Rochester, New York, and the Delco-Light name was changed to Delco Appliance. Delco-Light’s market share remained above 50 percent and the direct competitors list grew to nearly 150 companies, including several wind charger manufacturers, by the mid-1930s. Delco-Light sales surpassed 375,000 units by early 1935. The combined U.S. sales of farm and wind electric plants during this time approached 800,000 homes, businesses, schools, churches, and resorts.


In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration to put up electric lines - free, sort of - to rural areas being served by farm and wind electric plants. The entire farm and wind electric plant industry was suddenly affected. Newer and smaller companies were immediately impacted and it changed the marketplace for the rest. Like other industries, these companies converted to war material production to support U.S. and Allied forces during World War II. A few endured into the 1950s, but the fewer long-term survivors generally changed product lines altogether. Also gone were the suppliers of towers, batteries, and appliances plus the retail sales, installation, and service companies - not to mention the money for electricity that went to the electric monopolies in the major cities.


As an interesting highlight, Delco-Light developed a highly credible 1,000-watt wind charger named “Hi-Power” briefly in 1938. After devoting five years to war production, Delco-Light plants were produced for only a few more years until all production ceased in 1947. This was the same year Kettering retired from General Motors and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic interests, including the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Institute.


WINCHARGER

 

The farm electric light and power plant industry

History