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Byron Carter and the Self-Starter


death of byron carter It has been reported that the death of Byron Carter was the genesis of the creation of the electric starter for automobiles. The biography of Charles Kettering, the man who ultimately built the first production electric starter, records the story as follows:
In the summer of 1910 a woman driving an automobile across the old Belle Island Bridge in Detroit, stalled her engine.... A man who happened by just then stopped and offered to crank the woman's engine for her. He was Byron T. Carter, maker of the automobile called the Cartercar. Unfortunately the spark was not retarded. So the engine kicked back and the flying crank broke Carter's jaw.... Carter was not a young man, and complications arising out of the accident caused his death. Now, it happened that Carter was a friend of Henry Leland, head man at Cadillac. Soon afterward, in Leland's office, Kettering remarked that he thought it would be possible to do away with the hand crank, sometimes called the 'arm-strong starter,' by cranking cars electrically. In Leland's distress at the loss of his friend Carter, he took up the suggestion at once.
Kettering's biography is the earliest known account that mentions Byron Carter in the cranking accident. It was published in 1957, a year before Kettering died, but nearly 50 years after the death of Byron Carter. A similar account of the story appears in a 1957 GM publication called 'Adventures of the Inquiring Mind.'

Another 'first-person' account of the story is recorded in the biography of Henry Leland, who died in 1932. Henry Leland's biography was started by his son Wilfred, who worked alongside his father at Cadillac, shortly before Wilfred's death in 1958. It was later completed by Wilfred's wife Ottile and published in 1966. The story is a little more detailed in this account and adds some items such as: Both Kettering's and Leland's accounts agree that Byron Carter's cranking accident was the genesis of the electric starter motor. They disagree regarding whether it happened in the summer or in December and also in who first proposed the electric starter. More interestingly, they agree on a couple of facts that are wrong! First, Byron Carter's middle initial was 'J,' not 'T' as recorded in both Kettering's and Leland's biography. Secondly, Byron Carter died in 1908, two years before the cranking accident supposedly took place! It appears that the errors in the Kettering account were propagated to future accounts of the event and are widely quoted as the facts of the accident. An Internet search will easily show this.

The earliest account of the accident found so far is recorded in 'The Turning Wheel, The story of General Motors through twenty-five years, 1908-1933,' an extensive 500+ page account of the history of General Motors, published in 1934.  This version of the story does not mention Byron Carter by name:
An elderly friend of Henry M. Leland, founder of Cadillac, was driving a Cadillac on the Belle Isle bridge when the motor stalled.  Forgetting to throw out the clutch before cranking the car, he sustained serious injuries.  Mr. Leland's grief over this accident drove him to encourage Kettering, and to give the Delco starting, lighting, and ignition system a chance.
Does it make sense that Byron Carter would be driving a Cadillac instead of the car bearing his name and would he at age 44 be considered elderly?

So is the basic story true, that Byron Carter's cranking accident was the impetus behind the electric starter? It seems reasonable to have some doubts if the earliest recorded version that mentions his name was published almost 50 years later and contains verifiable mistakes. However, the two people most directly responsible for producing the electric starter for Cadillac in 1911 (for the 1912 model year) both said that Byron Carter's accident was the reason for pursuing the electric starter so the essence of the story may be true even if some of the details of the story are wrong.

What contemporary accounts of Byron Carter's death exist? In the search so far, the primary documentation found is Byron Carter's death certificate which records that he died at 10AM on April 6, 1908 at 512 Commonwealth St (Detroit) and the cause of death was 'double lobar pneumonia.' It also records that he had been under doctor's care from 4/1/08 until his death on 4/6/08 and that a contributory cause of death was 'consolidated lower lobe left side.' In the spot on the form for the duration of the contributory cause the value filled in was 'years.' There is also a '93' written in the cause of death area of the form, but it is not clear what that means. It should be noted that Byron Carter's tombstone lists the year of death as 1908 as well.

There are a couple of notices of his death that were published in automotive trade publications shortly following his death, but none of them mention a cranking accident as a contributory cause of his death. Two of them that do mention a cause, list it as being pneumonia; one mentioned that he had suffered from pneumonia for a week. Interestingly there are also mistakes in these contemporary reports - for example one lists him as being 45 years old (he was actually 44).

One local car collector in the Jackson area tells that there is another story behind his death by pneumonia - it was caused by getting his arm caught in the overhead belt mechanism used to drive machinery at that time.

Do you have any other information on the death of Byron Carter? If so, would you please let us know?
This site is a work-in-progress to document Cartercar history and production. It will be improved as time and information permit.
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