Let There Be Light

A Rare Elgin Engine Drives a Vintage Fisher Lighting Generator

| July 2005

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.