Charles Kettering, who operated the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, became fixated in 1913 on designing an efficient farm electric light plant for the masses in mostly rural America who did not enjoy the benefits of electricity, such as lighting and manual labor-savings appliances for the home and farm. His first unit was given to his mother in Loudonville, Ohio, as a Christmas gift in 1913.
By 1916, the Domestic Engineering Company in Dayton, Ohio, was incorporated and began to
manufacture the Delco-Light plants. The first commercial model rolled off the production line in April 1916. This unit was the 32-volt DC Model 850, which was rated 850 watts and 1.5 horsepower. That first year, the company sold a whopping 21,000 units, in addition offering a $2.5 million line of Delco appliances.
The Delco-Light plant generally consisted of an air-cooled gasoline or kerosene-powered engine,generator, switchboard, and set of batteries. The Delco-Light engine and generator were connected by gears which eliminated transmission losses or belt failures that commonly occurred in other electric light plants. The storage battery consisted of sixteen glass jar cells to deliver 32-volts DC current. Unless the demand for light and power is heavy, it was unnecessary to operate the engine, except when the storage battery required recharging.
In 1918, United Motors and Dayton Engineering were acquired by General Motors. A 2,500-watt, five-horsepower Delco-Light plant was introduced for larger power needs, such as resorts, country clubs, churches, movie theaters, large farms, small towns, and even yachts.
By 1920, Domestic Engineering Company name was changed to the Delco-Light Company and both a smaller 600-watt and larger 1,250-watt variant of the Model 850 were introduced by its Dayton factory.
The Delco-Light Company by 1921 had sales surpassing 135,000 units with 25 models. The company also achieved a plus-50 percent market share against another 52 firms manufacturing farm-electric light plants. Frigidaire, a subsidiary of the Delco-Light Company, started production of refrigerators in 1921.
In 1928, the original 850 watt and 1,250-watt Delco-Light plants were replaced by 750-watt and 800-watt variants of the 600-watt model with a carburetor and copper-finned cylinder replacing the mixing valve and finned cast-iron cylinder. The larger 2,500-watt model was replaced by 1,500-watt and 300-watt models powered by a four-cylinder, air-cooled engine developed by Kettering for Chevrolet five years earlier but never produced.
The Delco-Light plants were so successful that General Motors President Alfred Sloan boasted to
shareholders in 1929 that sales topped 325,000 units, with a more than 50 percent market share. At this point, General Motors is still providing electricity to more rural farms and homes than all the U.S. electric utilities combined. The company envisioned a market of 2.5 million units in the coming years.
In 1930, manufacturing of Delco-Light plants, water systems, appliances, and radios moved to a new factory in Rochester, New York, and the name was changed to Delco Appliance Corporation.
The original overhead valve engines were replaced in 1934 by a low cost “L”-head design. Smaller 100/200-watt and 400/500-watt “L”-head units were added. The four-cylinder, air-cooled engine was replaced by two- and four-cylinder, water-cooled models and larger units with Continental, Hercules, and Opel engines were added.
In 1938, the Rochester factory added the Hi-Power wind-powered, electric-generating unit which was rated at 1,000 watts/32 volts.
However, from 1941 to 1945, the entire production at the Rochester plant was devoted to the wartime production and no Delco-Light plants were manufactured during this period. Delco-Light production resumed in 1946, but General Motors realized that the Rural Electric Administration and electric utilities had effectively ended the sales for standalone electric light plants. Delco Appliance Corporation ceased manufacturing of Delco-Light plants in 1947, ironically the same year Charles Kettering retired from General Motors.
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