Charles F. Kettering

An engineer, industrial pioneer, and apostle of progress, Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958), first as an independent inventor and later as General Motors Corporation's research chief, conducted research which established him as one of the most creative Americans of his generation.

Charles Francis Kettering, born on August 29, 1876, on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio, taught three years in country and small-town schools to finance his higher education. Entering Ohio State University at age 22, he dropped out in his sophomore year because of poor eyesight. He worked two years as a telephone lineman, then returned to Ohio State, graduating at age 28 in 1904.

The NCR and Delco Era

Upon receiving his degree, Kettering became an experimental engineer with National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton. During his five years with NCR he created a low-cost printing cash register; electrified the cash register, doing away with the hand crank; developed a system that tied charge phones to cash registers; and originated an accounting machine for banks. Meantime, in 1905 he was married to Olive Williams of Ashland, Ohio. The couple had one son, Eugene Williams, in adulthood president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

Having developed a better ignition system for autos while working "on the side" for NCR, Kettering, with the financial backing of NCR's general manager Col. Edward A. Deeds and other capitalists, organized Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) in 1909. That year an order from Cadillac for 8,000 ignition systems led to creation of an electric starter, first offered on Cadillac cars in 1912 and on many more makes the following year. In addition to working on the self-starter, Kettering and Delco also improved auto lighting systems and developed a dependable means of generating electricity on farms. Meantime, Delco became a sizable manufacturing firm, as well as a research facility.

The GM Years

In 1915 Colonel Deeds, a top-notch administrator, joined Delco, complementing Kettering, who preferred to devote himself to research. In 1916 Delco, in exchange for nine million dollars, became a subsidiary of United Motors Corporation, an automotive parts and accessories combine. United Motors, in turn, was acquired by General Motors in 1918. Kettering was invited to organize and direct General Motors Research Corporation, headquartered in Dayton at the inventor's insistence. The labs were incorporated as General Motors Research Corporation in 1920, at which time Kettering—simultaneously named a GM vice-president and board member—agreed to move the bulk of research activity to Detroit. In 1925, when the labs were transferred to a new 11-story building, Kettering and his wife moved to Detroit, occupying a suite atop the Motor City's tallest hotel until Kettering's retirement.

As head of GM's research function for 27 years, Kettering guided research on and the improvement of many products, acquiring 140 patents in his name. His most notable achievements included the development of "Ethyl" leaded gasoline to eliminate engine knock; the high-compression automobile engine; the non-toxic, non-inflammable refrigerant "Freon" and faster-drying and longer-lasting finishes for automobiles. He also created the lightweight diesel engine, which, in one of its applications, revolutionized the motive power of railroads.

Philosopher and Humanitarian

In addition to earning acclaim as a scientist and engineer, Kettering was highly regarded as a public speaker and social philosopher. "I am for the double-profit system," he said, "a reasonable profit for the manufacturer and a much greater profit for the customer." "I object to people running down the future," he also remarked; "I am going to live all the rest of my life there, and I would like it to be a nice place, polished, bright, glistening, and glorious." Kettering always regarded himself as a professional amateur. "We are amateurs," he observed, "because we are doing things for the first time." "Do something different," he continually admonished, "My God, do something different."

Kettering retired from General Motors in 1947, while continuing to serve as a director and research consultant until his death in Dayton on November 25, 1958. He received more than three dozen honorary doctor's degrees and additional dozens of awards, citations, and medals. His name is memorialized in the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, which he organized for medical research in 1927, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, founded by GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. in 1945.

Further Reading on Charles F. Kettering

The most informative book on Kettering is Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering (1957), a sympathetic portrait by T. A. Boyd, a longtime associate. Boyd also edited the useful Prophet of Progress: Selections from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering (1961), which draws from the lengthy list of published speeches, articles, and interviews cited in an appendix. Kettering himself, with Allan Orth, wrote American Battle for Abundance: A Story of Mass Production (1947). The inventor also is discussed in Arthur Pound's The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twenty-five Years 1908-33 (1934).