Let There be Light!

Light Plants Revolutionized Farm Life, and Delco-Light Led the Way

Standard direct-coupled generator

Missing the standard direct-coupled generator, this unusual circa 1934 2-1/2 HP Model 1250 was instead equipped for belt duty.

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As the 20th century opened, the promising power of electricity was in full swing. Cities across the country set up electric generating plants and extended power lines, and industrial and residential customers in urban locales lined up to take advantage of clean electric power. Delivery of that power to the surrounding countryside was slow in coming, however.

In 1909, the CLS. Congress released its Country Life Commission Report in which it stressed the need for rural electrification and laid out options for achieving the goal. Unfortunately, little resulted from the report. By 1930 an estimated 90 percent of urban America benefited from electricity, compared to only 10 percent of rural America. But in 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Administration, and from that point on the process of rural electrification moved forward in earnest. In between, however, was the electric light plant.

The Delco Light Plant

By the 1920s the stationary gas engine was revolutionizing life in rural America. Reliable, portable power for the farm and small industry was changing the American landscape. Electricity presented yet another set of power options, and it didn't take a genius to realize there was money to be made supplying electric power to rural America.

Commercially viable electric-generating units were on the market by the 1900s, and by the early teens small, portable units became available. In 1909 Charles F. Kettering, the Dayton, Ohio-based electrical engineer and inventor responsible for the first electric starter (installed in a Cadillac in 1911), founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (DELCO). Kettering's company originally supplied electrical components for the growing automotive industry. But as electrification spread Kettering saw the promise in providing small-scale power for the farm, and in 1916 DELCO introduced its 'Delco-Light' line of electric-generating plants.

From the beginning, the Delco-Light line was designed to make life easier. Power was supplied by a single-cylinder vertical engine. To keep things simple, the engines were air-cooled, and to make things easy, DELCO, drawing on its expertise in small motors, fitted its light plants with electric starters. The customer only had to fill the tank, close the switch, and the light plant did the rest. The engine started automatically, charged the lead-acid storage batteries and, when the batteries were charged, shut itself down. The engine was restarted only when needed to bring the batteries back up to charge.

The first Delco-Light plant was a 750-watt, 32-volt unit (enough to light 37 20-watt bulbs) and was quickly followed by a broad line of light plants with output up to 1,250 watts. But even 1,250 watts was n't enough to satisfy the growing hunger for electricity, so in 1918 Delco-Light introduced a 3,000-watt light plant powered by a single-cylinder, 5 HP engine. Sales continued to build, and by 1925 more than 60,000 Delco-Light plants had been sold.

Delco-Light Sells Best at Night

From the outset, DELCO approached its light plants as the foundation for a broad range of electric products it could market to rural America. In addition to a light plant, customers could buy a wide range of Delco-Light products including small motors to power washers and pumps, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, radios, waffle irons - even ceiling fans.

To introduce its products to rural residents, Delco-Light salesmen traveled from farm to farm showing the company's wares. Driving specially painted Chevrolet coupes equipped with a light plant, a water pump and various accessories, the salesmen made their calls at night. At a prospective buyer's farm a salesman would open up the back of his coupe, fire up the light plant and then turn on a light and run the water pump, literally illuminating for a prospective customer just how much a light plant could ease his work load and improve his life. The salesman would then plug in a coffee maker and brew some coffee to clinch the deal. And if he sold the light-plant to Dad at night, he'd return the next day to sell Mom some 32-volt appliances. The phrase 'Delco-Light Sells Best at Night' effectively summed up the Delco-Light marketing strategy.

Competition

Delco-Light reached the heyday of its production in the 1930s, selling more than 350,000 units by 1935. Not surprisingly, Delco-Light wasn't alone in the market for home light plants. General Gas & Electric Co. actively pursued the home-lighting market, as did Westinghouse Machine Co., Kohler Co. and engine giant Fairbanks-Morse. Curiously, International Harvester Corp. stayed out of the home light plant market.

According to Wayne Sphar, an avid collector of all things Delco-Light, by the mid-1920s more than 150 manufacturers produced home light plants. Wayne (who prefers to be called 'Dr. Delco') says many companies sold component-built light plants, matching an engine from company A with a generator from company B. But Delco-Light clearly led the field, and its extensive line gives ample evidence to this assertion.

Delco-Light manufactured some 100 different models throughout its production of light plants, changing output specs and modernizing its engines as the company saw fit to make light plants smaller, lighter and more powerful. Although 500-watt and 600-watt units were offered, by far the most popular Delco-Light plant was the 850-watt, 32-volt DC (direct current) unit. Some 110-volt AC (alternating current) models were also built, but 32-volt DC units constituted perhaps 75 percent of production.

One of the most interesting engines made by Delco-Light was a little four-cylinder air-cooled unit. Rated at 3 HP and driving a 1,500-watt generator, the engine was DELCO founder Kettering's brainchild. Although designed in 1918, the engine wasn't put into light plant service until 1928, and it was phased out by 1934. Wayne says Kettering originally designed the engine (which he called the Corvair) for Chevrolet, but its automotive application was purposefully undermined through the use of high rear-end gear ratios that over-stressed and over-heated the engine. Kettering is thought to have lost $6 million dollars on the ill-fated venture with Chevrolet.

With the outbreak of World War II, Delco-Light -like many companies - devoted its energies to the war effort, producing units to meet military specifications. Civilian light plant production commenced again after the war, but by that time the massive rural electrification process launched by President Roosevelt in 1935 had brought electricity to a majority of rural areas. The writing was on the wall for mighty DELCO, and in 1947 production of electric plants ceased.

Richard Backus is editor of Gas Engine Magazine. Contact him at: 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265, or e-mail: rbackus@ogdenpubs.com

A Passion For Light: Dr. Delco's Delco-Light Museum

Long before engine collectors focused any interest on old light plants, Wayne Sphar, a retired coal miner and coalmine electrician in Avella, Pa., started collecting Delco-Light plants. Wayne's first light plant was an old 850-watt 32-volt unit he rescued from a junkyard in 1960. 'I got it working, and a friend who worked for the railroad where they still used some of these gave me some 30-volt bulbs,' Wayne recalls. '1 took it to a show, and it just captured the show. People remembered their fathers having them and their grandfathers having them.'

A fever for Delco-Light plants took hold, and Wayne started collecting every piece of Delco-Light equipment and literature he could find. His collection eventually grew so large he opened Dr. Delco's Delco-Light Museum.

Wayne's collection includes 50 complete Delco-Light plants (including a 'new' Model 850 built from new-old-stock parts), a few hundred appliances (including fans, radios, drills - even a brand new 32-volt toaster still in its original packaging), promotional items and mountains of Delco-Light literature. 'I really enjoy the reading and research I've done,' Wayne says. '1 get as much enjoyment out of that as anything.'

Wayne sells reproductions of old literature, and says he gets requests from around the world for literature and parts. His museum guest book reflects the international interest in light plants, with visitor signatures from numerous countries. Wayne's pleased with the interest in his museum, because he thinks in some measure the engine crowd has passed over light plants. 'Many people don't understand electricity, so they stay away from light plants,' Wayne says.

Wayne's collection presents a unique opportunity for visitors to fully appreciate the importance of home light plants and the spectrum of products available. Wayne's collection represents not only his interest in light plants, but his drive to preserve a piece of America's past. Ironically, Wayne's worried about that very preservation. At some point, Wayne won't be able to care for his collection. 'I've gotta make some kind of decision about how to preserve this,' Wayne says. 'There's so much to be preserved, it all needs to be preserved, and it's just a monumental task.'

Tours of Dr. Delco's Delco-Light Museum are available by contacting Wayne Sphar at: 4610 Jefferson Avenue, Avella, PA 15312.