Let There Be Light

A Rare Elgin Engine Drives a Vintage Fisher Lighting Generator


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Any Elgin engine is rare, and this one all the more so because it has an output shaft on the backside of the crankcase, which is extremely rare. In corresponding with other collectors I've only located two others. Moreover, it is in amazingly good, original, unrestored condition, and appears to have been used very little. It is a 1/2 HP upright, with a three-digit serial number, 662, circa 1914. Minus the rear output shaft, it is the predecessor of the Maytag 1/2 HP upright 2-stroke engine installed in Maytag's earliest gas engine washers. The Maytag Co. bought the Elgin Wheel & Engine Co. in 1916, made minor changes to the engine design, and commenced manufacturing the engine for their gas washers.

The rear output shaft of the Elgin is utilized to good advantage here, as it is directly shaft-coupled to a small vintage Fisher Electrical Works lighting generator. This is the way it was when I originally purchased the unit from a fellow engine collector/trader here in the North County area of San Diego in 2001. But they were just mounted on an old wooden base with no electrical system or wiring.

The vintage Fisher 32-volt lighting generator, also with a three-digit serial number, 679 (which makes one wonder if it was quite contemporary with the three-digit Elgin), is quite interesting. Among other things, it has dual exposed field coils atop the generator housing that are wound with cotton-insulated wire. It worked perfectly when I got it, putting out 32 volts DC at moderate engine speed. This was the norm for small light plants (notably Delco) such as this, which were widely used in the early part of the 20th century by people in rural areas before they had electricity. Typically, the 32-volt generator would be connected to a 30-volt bank of lead-acid storage batteries, which would power light bulbs at night. The engine-powered generator would recharge the batteries. A cutout relay (which this Fisher has in the can above the brushes) prevented back-discharge of the batteries into the generator.

In late 2004, after considerable thought on just how to do it, I finally embarked on the project of remounting the engine and generator in a manner I thought they deserved and would make an attractive and interesting working display. Mounting of the Fisher generator posed somewhat of a challenge for two reasons: 1) the height of the shaft off the mounting base is considerably shorter than that of the Elgin engine, and 2) with the rigid shaft coupling, exact alignment of generator with engine is needed. I was particularly concerned with no. 2 because the only noticeable wear on the Elgin is a little looseness in the rear output shaft in its housing. I believe this was caused by slight misalignment in the original rigid mounting of the generator and engine on a wooden base, with just a wood block between the generator and base.

I finally settled on the mounting shown, which utilizes four long, fully-threaded 1/2-inch bolts (they have flexible black tubing around the threads for better cosmetic appearance). The four bolts go through oversize holes in the oak board with jam nuts above and below the board. This allows for adjustment of the generator in all directions to achieve exact alignment with the engine shaft.

I designed and built the oak skid, metal bracketry, tall oak and brass light fixture, electrical system and wiring, and oak battery box. I left the Elgin in its remarkable original condition and only did a minor cosmetic restoration of the Fisher generator. The Elgin utilizes buzz coil ignition, and I happened to have a vintage Detroit Coil Co. buzz coil in a finger-jointed oak case, which fit in nicely on the skid in the space between the engine and generator.

The electrical system I designed and installed on the set is fairly elaborate and embodies several functions. It includes a vintage voltmeter, two fuses and several vintage porcelain base knife switches for various switching functions. Included in this is a provision, via a double-throw knife switch, for the buzz coil to operate either from the usual 6-volt battery or from the 30-volt battery bank by means of a voltage-dropping resistor. A capacitor was also necessary to accommodate buzz coil transient surge current effects.

The 5-foot tall oak and brass dual light fixture with vintage porcelain light bulb bases is my original design to get the two light bulbs high enough to illuminate the local area. It is quickly removable for storage and transportation by means of a single wing nut on the underside of the mounting base. There is also a third light bulb, with its own knife switch, permanently mounted on brass bracketry low on the unit.

Based on the best research information I could find, I designed and had made the Elgin, Fisher and Exide labels shown on the skid and battery box. I found from research that Exide was a very early prominent battery manufacturer, so I chose their name to put on the battery box.

The little Elgin starts easily, especially with the original hand crank that came with it, and runs great. It drives the Fisher lighting generator fine for the relatively low electrical load on it. The combination of the rare Elgin engine, vintage Fisher generator, electrical system and wiring, and overall interesting appearance attracts a lot of attention at shows. In fact, some people seem to be quite fascinated by it - I'm still fascinated, myself.

Contact engine enthusiast Max Steele at: 1726 S. Santa Fe Ave., Vista, CA 92084; maxlsteele@cox.net