Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant

1916 -1947


The Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant Story

The Delco-Light farm electric plant story begins with its introduction in 1916. More than a mere product, Charles Kettering designed and developed a family of complete electric power systems to satisfy the demand to provide electricity to farms, country homes, businesses, cabins, resorts, schools, churches, small towns, country clubs, and virtually every rural or remote building. Twenty five models from 500 to 3000 watts were available, either automatic gensets that would start on demand or the ultimately more popular hybrid version that combined the genset with a battery. The genset would automatically start when the battery was fully discharged, operate at its most fuel efficient point to charge, and stop when fully charged. The battery would silently provide electricity for several days before the process would automatically repeat. If the farm electrical demand was temporarily high, the genset would also start and run until the demand returned to normal lower levels. Operating the genset intermittently with a battery extended the engine life expectancy to an incredible “42 years” based on extensive testing.

As if that wasn’t enough, Kettering would build a huge factory employing thousands in Dayton, Ohio to manufacture Delco-light plants and related equipment. He would also convince others to manufacture all of the most popular convenience and kitchen appliances and other electrical equipment to work with his “safe” 32 volt d.c. system - electric light bulbs to eliminate flame lights, shallow and deep well pumps and system for running water, clothes washers, vacuum cleaners, coffee percolators, toasters, waffle irons, irons, mixers, sewing machines, and even a portable power stand to operate the belt driven farm and household equipment that was popular at the time - creamers, fanning mills, grinders, etc.. In effect providing “electricity” for a farm home with all of the modern conveniences of a home in the city.

Distribution, sales, installation, and service were not overlooked either - including special promotions, professional installation, and easy finance terms. The Delco-Light organization was impressive by any standards and grew the business by leaps and bounds. Despite a brief diversion of production in support of World War 1, within three years Delco-Light plants were supplying electricity to 135,000 farms and rural homes, schools, churches, and even a few small towns. By 1921, the number would grow to 175,000 and nearly twenty competitors would enter the burgeoning market for farm electric plants. Delco-Light’s superior technical and manufacturing capability, alliance partnerships, and strong sales organization would lead it to industry leadership with nearly 50% market share where it would remain.

In the mid 20’s, the invention of the radio and Kettering’s breakthrough research in refrigeration led to the “fridge” or Frigidaire refrigerator which was manufactured by Delco - General Motors. Both these devices added to the popularity of Delco-Light farm electric plants. By 1928, Alfred Sloan, the President of General Motors, boasted to shareholders that Delco sales passed 325,000 and the future was bright with a market potential of 2.5 million homes and farms. The other manufacturers who would grow in number to over 150 would account for another 325,000 farms powered by a “lighting” plant - enduring names like Onan, Kohler, Fairbanks-Morse, Allis Chalmers, and more.

In the early 1930’s, several wind generator manufacturer would join the farm electric plant market with great success in midwest and windy Great Plains states - names like Jacobs Wind Electric Company, Wincharger, Wind Power Light Company, Parris-Dunn and more. The wind electric plants would be sold alone or to work with a “Delco-Light” plant to reduce fuel use and engine running time.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt establish the Rural Electrification Administration as an “emergency agency” by executive order “to carry electricity to as many farms as possible in the shortest possible time and have it used in quantities sufficient to affect rural life”. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 transformed it to a permanent agency. In the next two years, $210,000,000 was spent on 100,000 miles of power lines to provide electricity to 220,000 farms - $950 per home. At the time, $950 was 55% of the average annual wage of $1,713 or 24% of the average cost of a new home of $3,925 and the population was 128 million total with 40%, or 51 million, living in rural areas. The cost would bring 60 amps of electricity to farms and country homes and businesses who would be charged a monthly service fee and for each unit of electricity forever.

It sounded good except that no one mentioned that Delco-Light and other farm and wind electric plants were providing electricity to nearly 1,000,000 farms in America already. That at that same time you could buy a Delco-Light plant for $495, a powerful Jacobs Wind Electric plant for $595, or both using a single battery for less than the $950 to run the power lines from the city - and never have a monthly electric bill. The effect on the farm and wind electric plant industry was immediate. Hundreds of manufacturing companies, throughout the midwest and around the nation, and the distribution, sales, installation, service companies employing hundreds of thousands of people were staggered. After struggling successfully to grow during the early years of the depression, the impact of REA of the farm and wind electric industry was devastating. Many survived long enough to contribute to the war effort during WW II, many disappeared or changed to a related market, and a few continued on successfully.

Enjoy the photo journal of Charles F. Kettering’s Delco-Light Plant


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