• 2018

Losing the Keys

The Real History of the Push-Button Starter

From hand crank to gunpowder cylinders, the evolution of the starter has certainly seen its share of changes. The most recent, of course, is the push-button starter. But that little button isn’t really all that new. Or is it?

A Spark from the Past

In the early days of the automobile (circa 1900s), there were a few different ways to start a car. Spring starters required a lot of winding and using gunpowder in the cylinders seemed wrong. So, in the early days of the automobile, many vehicles were started with a hand crank.

Starting a hand crank vehicle was no small task. It meant standing outside the vehicle (no matter the weather) to crank the engine. The cranking motion allowed the internal combustion to begin. It also left people sweating in their Sunday best.

A solution was necessary, and automotive companies were working toward it.

Cranking into the Future

Running at almost a parallel path was the invention of the Bendix drive and the electric starter motor.

In 1910, Vincent Bendix invented the Bendix starter, which allowed the pinion gear to automatically engage or disengage the flywheel. The device went to market in 1914 on the Chevrolet “Baby Grand” and stayed around for about 50 years.

In 1911, Charles Kettering was commissioned to develop an affordable, easier alternative to the crank. Kettering as selected for the task because he successfully eliminated the crank on cash registers with an electric cash register motor. He quickly brought the push-button electric starter to the automotive market where it debuted in 1912.

Not only did the invention make starting a car more convenient, it opened up the automotive market to people who couldn’t physically crank start an engine.

All Keyed Up

Enter 1949, the year Chrysler Corporation introduced the key-operated ignition switch. This new mechanism combined starter and ignition switch, removing the need for a starter button.

That single key has evolved into a coded electronic transponder chip that is read by the car to start the ignition, remote unlock/open/close, alarm control, panic button and HVAC control.

Back to the Button

It was almost 50 years (1998) later when the push-button start made a comeback via the name “Keyless Go”. The system is a lot like the one we use today, with all the same benefits of our new key fobs, with the exception of actually starting the car. The new system lets the key holder open a locked car just by standing next to it, and start it without putting the key in the ignition.

While it may seem like a repeat of the old push start, the technology is completely different. On the updated version, the key fob transmits a frequency to a code that is stored in the car. The exact code frequency changes with every use so it’s really hard to hack.

What Does the Future Hold?

Maybe a key fob, and maybe not. Automakers are holding the technology pretty close to the vest. Voice control? Retina scan? Fingerprint? Whatever it is, no doubt it will be one for the history books.

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