It has been widely 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:
The accident happened in December 1910.
Both Carter's arm and jaw were broken.
Within a few minutes of Carter's accident, two Cadillac
engineers, Ernest Sweet and Bill Foltz, arrived and started
the lady's car and took Byron Carter to the hospital.
Carter's injuries didn't seem serious, but he didn't recover
and died a few weeks later of pneumonia.
When Sweet and Foltz reported the event to Henry Leland, he
said 'I'm sorry I ever built an automobile. Those vicious
cranks! I won't have Cadillac's hurting people that way.'
It was after the Cadillac engineers had done enough work to
prove that an electric starter could work that Charles
Kettering was called in to make the starter motor smaller and
ready for production.
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.
An earlier account of the accident 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?
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?
Getting back to the source of the Electric Starter story...
There was a automobile handcrank accident recorded in April 22, 1907
in the Detroit Free Press:
H. O. Carter, representing the Carter International Automobile Manufacturing Co.,
of Milwaukee, with a local office, met with a peculiar and painful accident at
Belle Isle yesterday afternoon.
With John C. Voll, traveling man, and a number of other friends, Mr. Carter
was driving his auto on the Canadian shore of the island when he observed
another machine in distress. Mr. Carter stopped his own machine and went
to the relief of the stranded party. He was manipulating the crank bar,
when the contrivance slipped, striking him a violent blow in the jaw.
The injured man was first conveyed to the Marine hospital, where his face
received temporary dressing. As the hospitals were unable to provide private
quarters for the patient, Mr. Carter was taken to his room at the Griswold
house, where he is being cared for by Dr. Wright. His jaw is badly fractured.
The Washington Post account adds more detail on the injuries: "The left side
of his head was crushed. A section of his cheek bone was extracted Sunday night
and he is very weak from loss of blood. It is expected, however, that he will
Thankfully, H. O. Carter did not die from his injuries and a July 1907 newspaper article reported
that "Mr. Carter showed but slight effects of his narrow escape from death a few
Howard O. Carter was also an early automotive pioneer and is best known as the
inventor and patent holder for the Carter Two-Engine Automobile which was being produced
by the Carter Motor Car Corporation at this same time. Besides the two-engined
car itself, the Carter Motor Car story is a fascinating one, involving stock
sales schemes and the use of automobile "school" students as unpaid
factory workers. While the Carter Two-Engine Automobile did not last very long, the company continued for a while, building Washington cars and trucks. In the next decade, H. O. Carter was still active, building airplanes and marketing other inventions.
The Washington Herald account of H. O. Carter's accident included an important and relevant fact to the electric starter story:
"he was struck in the jaw by a crank he was using to start a Caddilac[sic.] car".
Perhaps the true origin of the story of first electric starter by Kettering and Henry Leland of Cadillac
is now known.
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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