Magnetos were used on the small engine's ancestor, the stationary "hit or miss" engine which was used in the early twentieth century, on older gasoline or distillate farm tractors before battery starting and lighting became common, and on aircraft piston engines. Magnetos were used in these engines because their simplicity and self-contained operation was more reliable, and because magnetos weighed less than having a battery and generator or alternator.
Aircraft engines usually have multiple magnetos to provide redundancy in the event of a failure. Some older automobiles had both a magneto system and a battery actuated system (see below) running simultaneously to ensure proper ignition under all conditions with the limited performance each system provided at the time.
In order to provide high voltage for the spark from the low voltage batteries, a "tickler" was used, which was essentially a larger version of the once widespread electric buzzer. With this apparatus, the direct current passes through an electromagnetic coil which pulls open a pair of contact points, interrupting the current; the magnetic field collapses, the spring-loaded points close again, the circuit is reestablished, and the cycle repeats rapidly. The rapidly collapsing magnetic field, however, induces a high voltage across the coil which can only relieve itself by arcing across the contact points; while in the case of the buzzer this is a problem as it causes the points to oxidize and/or weld together, in the case of the ignition system this becomes the source of the high voltage to operate the spark plugs.
In this mode of operation, the coil would "buzz" continuously, producing a constant train of sparks. The entire apparatus was known as the Model T spark coil (in contrast to the modern ignition coil which is only the actual coil component of the system), and long after the demise of the Model T as transportation they remained a popular self-contained source of high voltage for electrical home experimenters, appearing in articles in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and projects for school science fairs as late as the early 1960s. In the UK these devices were commonly known as trembler coils and were popular in cars pre-1910, and also in commercial vehicles with large engines until around 1925 to ease starting.
The Model T (built into the flywheel) differed from modern implementations by not providing high voltage directly at the output; the maximum voltage produced was about 30 volts, and therefore also had to be run through the spark coil to provide high enough voltage for ignition, as described above, although the coil would not "buzz" continuously in this case, only going through one cycle per spark. In either case, the high voltage was switched to the appropriate spark plug by the timer mounted on the front of the engine, the equivalent of the modern distributor. The timing of the spark was adjustable by rotating this mechanism through a lever mounted on the steering column.
The first reliable battery operated ignition was developed by the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco) and introduced in the 1910 Cadillac. This ignition was developed by Charles Kettering and was a wonder in its day. It consisted of a single coil, points (the switch), a capacitor and a distributor set up to allocate the spark from the ignition coil timed to the correct cylinder. The coil was basically an autotransformer set up to step up the low (6 or 12V) voltage supply to the high ignition voltage required to jump a spark plug gap.
The points allow the coil to charge magnetically and then, when they are opened by a cam arrangement, the magnetic field collapses and a large (20KV or greater) voltage is produced. The capacitor is used to absorb the back EMF from the magnetic field in the coil to minimize point contact burning and maximize point life. The Kettering system became the primary ignition system for many years in the automotive industry due to its lower cost, higher reliability and relative simplicity.
Most four-stroke engines have used a mechanically timed electrical ignition system. The heart of the system is the distributor. The distributor contains a rotating cam running off the engine's drive, a set of breaker points, a condenser, a rotor and a distributor cap. External to the distributor is the ignition coil, the spark plugs, and wires linking the spark plugs and ignition coil to the distributor.
The system is powered by a lead-acid battery, which is charged by the car's electrical system using a dynamo or alternator. The engine operates contact breaker points, which interrupt the current to an induction coil (known as the ignition coil).
The ignition coil consists of two transformer windings sharing a common magnetic core -- the primary and secondary windings. An alternating current in the primary induces alternating magnetic field in the coil's core. Because the ignition coil's secondary has far more windings than the primary, the coil is a step-up transformer which induces a much higher voltage across the secondary windings. For an ignition coil, one end of windings of both the primary and secondary are connected together. This common point is connected to the battery (usually through a current-limiting resistor). The other end of the primary is connected to the points within the distributor. The other end of the secondary is connected, via the distributor cap and rotor, to the spark plugs.
The ignition firing sequence begins with the points (or contact breaker) closed. A steady charge flows from the battery, through the current-limiting resistor, through the coil primary, across the closed breaker points and finally back to the battery. This steady current produces a magnetic field within the coil's core. This magnetic field forms the energy reservoir that will be used to drive the ignition spark.
As the engine turns, so does the cam inside the distributor. The points ride on the cam so that as the engine turns and reaches the top of the engine's compression cycle, a high point in the cam causes the breaker points to open. This breaks the primary winding's circuit and abruptly stops the current through the breaker points. Without the steady current through the points, the magnetic field generated in the coil immediately begins to quickly collapse. This rapid decay of the magnetic field induces a high voltage in the coil's secondary windings.
At the same time, current exits the coil's primary winding and begins to charge up the capacitor ("condenser") that lies across the now-open breaker points. This capacitor and the coil’s primary windings form an oscillating LC circuit. This LC circuit produces a damped, oscillating current which bounces energy between the capacitor’s electric field and the ignition coil’s magnetic field. The oscillating current in the coil’s primary, which produces an oscillating magnetic field in the coil, extends the high voltage pulse at the output of the secondary windings. This high voltage thus continues beyond the time of the initial field collapse pulse. The oscillation continues until the circuit’s energy is consumed.
The ignition coil's secondary windings are connected to the distributor cap. A turning rotor, located on top of the breaker cam within the distributor cap, sequentially connects the coil's secondary windings to one of the several wires leading to each cylinder's spark plug. The extremely high voltage from the coil's secondary -– often higher than 1000 volts -- causes a spark to form across the gap of the spark plug. This, in turn, ignites the compressed air-fuel mixture within the engine. It is the creation of this spark which consumes the energy that was originally stored in the ignition coil’s magnetic field.
High performance engines with eight or more cylinders that operate at high r.p.m. (such as those used in motor racing) demand both a higher rate of spark and a higher spark energy than the simple ignition circuit can provide. This problem is overcome by using either of these adaptations:
The Lamborghini V-12 engine has both these adaptations and therefore uses two ignition coils and a single distributor that contains 4 contact breakers.
Except that more separate elements are involved, a distributor-based system is not greatly different from a magneto system. There are also advantages to this arrangement. For example, the position of the contact breaker points relative to the engine angle can be changed a small amount dynamically, allowing the ignition timing to be automatically advanced with increasing revolutions per minute (RPM) and/or increased manifold vacuum, giving better efficiency and performance.
However it is necessary to check periodically the maximum opening gap of the breaker(s), using a feeler gauge, since this mechanical adjustment affects the "dwell" time during which the coil charges, and breakers should be re-dressed or replaced when they have become pitted by electric arcing. This system was used almost universally until the late 1970s, when electronic ignition systems started to appear.
In addition, the spark voltage is also dependent on contact effectiveness, and poor sparking can lead to lower engine efficiency. A mechanical contact breaker system cannot control an average ignition current of more than about 3 A while still giving a reasonable service life, and this may limit the power of the spark and ultimate engine speed.
Electronic ignition (EI) solves these problems. In the initial systems, points were still used but they only handled a low current which was used to control the high primary current through a solid state switching system. Soon, however, even these contact breaker points were replaced by an angular sensor of some kind - either optical, where a vaned rotor breaks a light beam, or more commonly using a Hall effect sensor, which responds to a rotating magnet mounted on the distributor shaft. The sensor output is shaped and processed by suitable circuitry, then used to trigger a switching device such as a thyristor, which switches a large current through the coil.
The rest of the system (distributor and spark plugs) remains as for the mechanical system. The lack of moving parts compared with the mechanical system leads to greater reliability and longer service intervals. For older cars, it is usually possible to retrofit an EI system in place of the mechanical one. In some cases, a modern distributor will fit into the older engine with no other modifications.
Other innovations are currently available on various cars. In some models, rather than one central coil, there are individual coils on each spark plug, sometimes known as direct ignition or coil on plug (COP). This allows the coil a longer time to accumulate a charge between sparks, and therefore a higher energy spark. A variation on this has each coil handle two plugs, on cylinders which are 360 degrees out of phase (and therefore reach TDC at the same time); in the four-cycle engine this means that one plug will be sparking during the end of the exhaust stroke while the other fires at the usual time, a so-called "wasted spark" arrangement which has no drawbacks apart from faster spark plug erosion; the paired cylinders are 1/4 and 2/3. Other systems do away with the distributor as a timing apparatus and use a magnetic crank angle sensor mounted on the crankshaft to trigger the ignition at the proper time.
During the 1980s, EI systems were developed alongside other improvements such as fuel injection systems. After a while it became logical to combine the functions of fuel control and ignition into one electronic system known as an engine control unit.
Some designs using EMS retain the original coil, distributor and spark plugs found on cars throughout history. Other systems dispense with the distributor and coil and use special spark plugs which each contain their own coil (Direct Ignition). This means high voltages are not routed all over the engine, but are instead created at the point at which they are needed. Such designs offer potentially much greater reliability than conventional arrangements.
Modern EMS systems usually monitor other engine parameters such as temperature and the amount of uncombined oxygen in the exhaust. This allows them to control the engine to minimise unburnt or partially burnt fuel and other noxious gases, leading to much cleaner and more efficient engines.
Turbine engines have a capacitor discharge ignition system using 1 or more igniter plugs, which are only used at startup or in case the combustor(s) flame goes out. Rocket engines have particularly demanding ignitions systems- if prompt ignition does not occur the chamber can fill with excess fuel and oxidiser and significant overpressure can occur (a 'hard start'). Rockets often employ pyrotechnic devices that place flames across the face of the injector plate, or, alternatively, self-igniting chemicals.