Let There Be Light

By Staff
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'The little 6.3 cubic inch Elgin is in exceptionally good, unrestored condition. Note the rear crankshaft extension to drive the generator. '
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'Above: An overhead view of the Elgin engine and Fisher generator powering three household light bulbs, all on a custom-built skid weighing a total of 98 pounds. Left: Detail of the skid assembly. '

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

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