The Car Starter: Nicholas Callan & the ‘Model T’ Ford

1926 was the first year that cars such as the Ford Model T roadster, pictured here, came with automatic starting batteries. Cars now started up at the turn of a switch thanks to technology developed by Irishman Nicholas Callan (Credit:

Up to 1926, all cars had to be ‘cranked up’ by hand, in order to get started. From that year onwards, Model-T Ford cars came with starting batteries, which meant that a car could be started without physical labour for the first time.

The technology that made this possible was the induction coil, which had been invented in the middle of the 19th century by Nicholas Callan, a priest and scientist, born in Co Louth that was based at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Callan’s coil made it possible to massively ‘ramp up’ the power that could be supplied from a small battery. This was done by rapid interuptions of electrical current, which meant up to 600,000 volts could be produced from a 12 Volt battery.

This induction coil, or electrical ‘transformer’ technology, meant that sparks could be created that ignited the petrol in the car, sparked the pistons, and, this in turn, drove the crank shaft and powered the engine into life.

It was a technological breakthrough that made it far easier to operate cars, and made them more appealing to a mass market. Callan, however, did not get credit for his invention until at least the 1930s, some 70 years after his death.

LISTEN: Interview with Dr Neil McKeith, Curator of the National Science Museum at St Patrick’s College Maynooth (Nicholas Callan’s Alma Mater)

First broadcast on Science Spinning on 103.2 Dublin City FM