Let There be Light!

By Staff
1 / 4
Missing the standard direct-coupled generator, this unusual circa 1934 2-1/2 HP Model 1250 was instead equipped for belt duty.
2 / 4
Advertising for the Delco-Light line was aggressive, with ads such as this one from the mid-1920s that equated Delco-Light products with health and happiness.
3 / 4
A trio of 'Little Joe' Delco-Light plants on display at the Delco-Light Museum. Introduced in 1939, the Little Joe was powered by a 0.45 HP Continental engine and was available in either 6-volt or 12-volt versions.
4 / 4

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.

Gas Engine Magazine
Gas Engine Magazine
Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines