Robert Bosch, inventor of the spark plug

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The spark of automotive genius begins one cold December day late in 1901, in a small German factory that employs a few dedicated, yet unknown, workers.

A 30-year-old man with an ever lengthening beard and a receding hairline is bent over at the waist, glancing over the shoulder of his talented assistant.

Flash!

In the blink of an eye, time stands still.

In the blink of an eye, an invention is created, an empire is born and a man's vision is no longer just a vision.

"You really have hit the bulls-eye," Robert Bosch tells Gottlob Honold, slapping his colleague on the back.

In Honold's hand is the world's first spark plug.

The new development, a high-voltage magneto (or electrical generator) ignition unit, would be an extension of something Bosch himself invented just four years earlier.

How significant was that day?

The auto industry was revolutionized by the little plug of power and Robert Bosch, the owner, the dreamer and the believer, would never be the same.

Until that point, vehicle ignition systems were unreliable at best. Carl Benz, the famous automotive inventor, had once described them as "the problem of all problems."

Some caught fire. Others rapidly emptied motorcar batteries leaving their owners stranded on dirt paths in the middle of nowhere.
Bosch had an alternative. His system could be fit to any size engine and, down the line, would allow for more horsepower.

Within 12 months, Bosch, the company, patented the device, paving the way for a small German company to become a worldwide enterprise.

Bosch had taken the risk and he would reap the rewards. The path was hardly direct.

Born in 1861 in a small village in southwest Germany, he was the 11th of 12 children. A curious and confident boy, when his father asked whether he wanted to be a precision mechanic after he finished secondary school, little Robert had one cool and collected answer.

"Yes, of course I do."

After earning a journeyman's certificate, Bosch left his small town, working wherever he could learn the most. He visited Cologne where his older brother, Karl, ran a plumbing business. He also attended a technical school in Stuttgart "in order to shed my fear of technical jargon," he later said.

In the spring of 1884, Bosch traveled to America and eventually found himself in the company of Thomas Edison while working for a short time at Edison Machine Works. The experience later served him well.

Two years later, at just 24 years of age, Bosch returned to Germany and, with start-up capital from his own savings account as well as a family inheritance, put together his own business in Stuttgart called "Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering."

With just two employees, Bosch set up a business repairing anything he could get his hands on, from telephones to telegraphs.

Within a decade he hit it big by first creating his low-voltage magneto, a device created only because a customer had requested it. The magneto was first used in a de Dion Bouton three-wheel car and then presented to the automaker Daimler after Honold refined it into a spark plug.

Bosch, the company, flourished.

It took nine years to sell 1,000 low-voltage electrical systems. Within the next five years he had $1 million in business from the United States alone.

In 1910 he built a factory in Springfield, Mass., and by 1914, with his American-like production systems, nearly all of the large automobile companies were using his starters, generators and horns. At one point, 90 percent of his deliveries were headed abroad.

He made strides in other areas. With volumes - and profits - increasing he introduced higher wages as well as the eight-hour work day because he considered it to be "the most conducive for maintaining human work capacity." Saturday afternoons were free for workers and holidays were introduced.

Bosch's enterprise was a world leader as he became one of the major industrialists in the Western World, producing more goods such as refrigerators, radios and power tools.

Bosch died in 1942, ending an illustrious career, but not before establishing enormous philanthropic organizations as a way to give back to the community that helped make him successful.

Today, Bosch, the company, is a world leader in the automotive supplier industry, producing millions of parts daily.

As for the spark plug, it is still an indispensable item of modern engines. Each day one million or more of them leave Bosch factories.
One spark, one moment in history, burning ever so bright.

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America

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