Magnetos provide power
The simplest form of spark ignition is that using a magnet. The engine spins a magnet inside a coil, and also operates a contact breaker, interrupting the current and causing the voltage to be increased sufficiently to jump a small gap. The spark plugs are connected directly from the magneto output. Magnetos are not used in modern cars, but because they generate their own electricity they are often found on piston aircraft engines and small engines such as those found in mopeds, lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws, etc. where a battery-based electrical system is not present for any combination of necessity, weight, cost, and reliability reasons.
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.
The output of a magneto depends on the speed of the engine, and therefore starting can be problematic. Some magnetos include an impulse system, which spins the magnet quickly at the proper moment, making easier starting at slow cranking speeds. Some engines, such as aircraft but also the Ford Model T, used switchable systems which relied on non-rechargeable dry cells, (similar to a large flashlight battery, and which was not maintained by an electrical system as on modern automobiles) to start the engine or for starting and running at low speed. The operator would manually switch the ignition over to magneto operation for high-speed operation.
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 re-established, 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.
With the universal adaptation of electrical starting for automobiles, and the concomitant availability of a large battery to provide a constant source of electricity, magneto systems were abandoned for systems which interrupted current at battery voltage, used an ignition coil (a type of autotransformer) to step the voltage up to the needs of the ignition, and a distributor to route the ensuing pulse to the correct spark plug at the correct time.
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.
Much of this magneto history is from Wikipedia.