Let There be Light!

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

| January/February 2004

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.