Still exploring the strange world of pre-electric starting systems. Winton was first with a compressed air system in 1908. Pierce adopted a similar system in 1911. The Pierce was more complicated, but also described and illustrated better, so I’ll go with it here.
The self-starter on the Pierce-Arrow cars consists primarily of a four-cylinder air pump on the forward end of the transmission case, an air reservoir suspended within the chassis, and a distributer, driven from the camshaft.
The system diagram:
Innards of the little foot-long compressor, basically a miniature engine:
The air control board is located in the footboard, near the driver’s seat, and the clutch actuating the power-driven pump is governed from this panel. The air pump clutch is in connection with the auxiliary shaft in the transmission. By pressing a button on the control panel, the driver releases the air from the tank to the distributer, and thence to the cylinders. A nozzle on the control panel connects with a tube for inflation of tires.
The tire inflator probably made the system worthwhile.
The air distributer is a rotating disk having an oblong circumferential slot. The air supply enters the cover of the distributer centrally, and the air delivery pipes enter the distributer case beneath the disk. As the disk rotates, its slot registers in firing order with the different cylinders, thus delivering the air pressure to the cylinder on the suction stroke and to the others in sequence, so as to give a continuous turning movement to the crankshaft.
Like most overdone tech achievements, this first appeared in 1911, just before the Delco electric system took over.
Later thought: It’s too bad Pierce didn’t hang onto their air system for a few more years. It would have been ideal to power or assist brakes, wipers**, fuel pumps, convertible tops, and suspensions. Two of the cylinders could have been piped separately to run an air conditioner. Amortize, amortize, amortize!
** A wiper blade with a built-in warm air sprayer would be wonderfully effective. Evaporate and defrost all at once. … Can’t find any early patents for the idea. This 1953 patent uses compressed air to blow forward from the blade, which wouldn’t do any good. Turns out Ferrari is finally trying the correct idea right now!