Engines are feedback systems which once started, rely on the motion from each nth cycle to initiate the next cycle. In a four-stroke engine, the third stroke releases energy from the fuel, powering the fourth (exhaust) stroke and also the first two (intake, compression) strokes of the next cycle, as well as powering the engine’s external load. To get this feedback started, the first two strokes must be powered in some other way. The starter motor is used for this purpose, then is not needed once the feedback system is running.
Originally, a hand-crank was used to start engines, but it was inconvenient, difficult, and dangerous to crank-start an engine. The behavior of an engine during starting is not always predictable. The engine can kick back, causing sudden reverse rotation. Many manual starters included a one-directional slip or release provision so that once engine rotation began, the starter would disengage from the engine. In the event of a kickback, the reverse rotation of the engine could suddenly engage the starter, causing the crank to unexpectedly and violently jerk, possibly injuring the operator. For cord-wound starters, a kickback could pull the operator towards the engine or machine, or swing the starter cord and handle at high speed around the starter pulley. Even though cranks had an overrun mechanism, when the engine started, the crank could begin to spin along with the crankshaft and potentially strike the person cranking the engine. Additionally, care had to be taken to retard the spark in order to prevent backfiring; with an advanced spark setting, the engine could kick back (run in reverse), pulling the crank with it, because the overrun safety mechanism works in one direction only.
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