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Charles F. Kettering

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

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). □

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Kettering, Charles F.

Charles F. Kettering

Born: August 29, 1876
Loudonville, Ohio
Died: November 25, 1958
Dayton, Ohio

American engineer

Charles F. Kettering, first as an independent inventor and later as head of research for General Motors Corporation, conducted research that established him as one of the most creative Americans of his generation.

Early years

Charles Francis Kettering was born on August 29, 1876, on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio, to Jacob and Martha Hunter Kettering. He was the fourth of five children. He was an excellent student who loved to read, and he also showed an early interest in trying to find better ways of doing things. His brother Adam, in Stuart W. Leslie's Boss Kettering, describes how young Charles tried "half the tools on the farm" to find the best way to pick potatoes. After high school graduation Kettering taught three years in country and small-town schools to make money to pay for college. Entering Ohio State University at age twenty-two, he dropped out in his sophomore year because of poor eyesight. Kettering worked for two years as a telephone lineman and then returned to Ohio State, graduating at age twenty-eight.

The NCR and Delco era

After Kettering received his degree he took a job as an experimental engineer with National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio. During his five years there he created a low-cost printing cash register; created an electric cash register, doing away with the hand crank; developed a system that tied charge phones to cash registers; and developed an accounting machine for banks. In 1905 he married Olive Williams of Ashland, Ohio. The couple had one son.

Having developed a better ignition (starting) system for autos while working "on the side" for NCR, Kettering, with the help of NCR's general manager Colonel Edward A. Deeds and others who put up money, organized Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) in 1909. That year an order from Cadillac for eight thousand ignition systems led to the creation of an electric starter, first offered on Cadillac cars in 1912 and on many other makes the following year. Kettering and Delco also improved auto lighting systems and developed a dependable way to generate electricity on farms. Delco grew into a large manufacturing firm as well as a research site.

The General Motors years

In 1915 Colonel Deeds, a good man with business details, joined Delco, teaming up with Kettering, who preferred to devote himself to research. In 1916 Delco, in exchange for $9 million, became a branch of United Motors Corporation, an automotive parts and accessories (objects adding to the appearance or performance of something) company. In turn, General Motors (GM) acquired United Motors in 1918. Kettering was invited to organize and direct the new General Motors Research Corporation, based in Dayton at the inventor's request. By 1925 the research labs had been transferred to Detroit, Michigan; Kettering and his wife lived in a hotel in the city until Kettering's retirement.

As head of GM research for 27 years, Kettering helped bring about the improvement of many products, acquiring 140 patents in his name. His most notable achievements included the development of "Ethyl" leaded gasoline to correct engine knock; the refrigerant (cooling agent) "Freon"; and faster-drying and longer-lasting finishes for automobiles. He also created the lightweight diesel engine, which helped improve the moving power of railroads.

Helped the public good

Kettering, in addition to his success as a scientist and engineer, was highly regarded as a public speaker and social philosopher (seeker of wisdom). "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."

Kettering retired from GM in 1947 but continued to serve as a director and research adviser until his death in Dayton on November 25, 1958. He received more than three dozen honorary (achieved without meeting the usual requirements) doctor's degrees and dozens of awards, honors, and medals. His name lives on 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.

For More Information

Boyd, T. A. Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering. New York: Dutton, 1957. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Kettering, Charles F., and Allan Orth. American Battle for Abundance: A Story of Mass Production. Detroit: General Motors, 1947.

Leslie, Stuart W. Boss Kettering. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Pound, Arthur. The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twenty-five Years 190833. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1934.

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Kettering, Charles Franklin

Kettering, Charles Franklin

(b. Loudon ville, Ohio, 25 November 1876; d. Loudonville 25 November 1958)

engineering, invention.

Kettering’s genius lay in his ability to adopt new methods and concepts in solving technical problems. He was a questioner with a fondness for challenging the apparently obvious: Why is grass green? Have you ever been a piston in a diesel engine?

Kettering was one of five children of Jacob Kettering, a farmer and carpenter, and the former Mary Hunter. As a boy his schooling was interrupted by poor eyesight, but the eventually graduated from the Ohio State University in 1904 with a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the inventions staff of the National Cash Register Company, working there for five years;then he left to found the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) with Edward A. Deeds. The company subsequently became part of General Motors.

Kettering’s first great achievement was the electric starter for automobiles, installed on the Cadillac car in 1912. His contribution was motor powerful enough to turn the engine over but small enough to fit in motor vehicle. The concept originated when he was working on an electric cash register and realized that the motor he required need not carry a constant load but merely had to deliver an occasional surge of power. Kettering was invited to work on the starter because his company had designed a successful wet-battery ignition system for Cadillac. This system was alleged to be a cause of engine knock; and to refute this criticism Kettering undertook to find the real cause of knock—which, with remarkable insight, he de4cided was imperfect combustion o9f the fuel. After long research in cooperation with Thomas Midgley, Jr., and T. A. Boyd, he found a remedy in the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline. The resulting product, ethyl gasoline, was put on the market in 1922. At the same time Kettering was working with Du Pont chemists to develop a Quick-drying lacquer finish for motor vehicle bodies, thereby eliminating a troublesome source of delay in production.

In 1919 Kettering became head of the General Motors Research Corporation, an assignment designed to give greater scope and resources for his talents. It was in this capacity that he completed his work on antiknock gasoline and quick-drying finishes. He also tried to design an engine with an air-cooling system using copper fins on the cylinders over which air was blown by a fan. Some cars using this system were built in 1922 but were subsequently withdrawn, and the experiment was discontinued as impractical in the existing state of the art. A search for a nontoxic refrigerant had a happier outcome, the result being the fluorine compounds known as Freon.

During the 1930’s Kettering was active in the refinement and improvement of the diesel engine. The specific steps involved using a two-cycle system, better fuel injection, and prevention of piston overheating. The result was the replacement of steam by diesel power on railroads and the use of diesel engines in trucks and buses. Subsequently, through the Charles F. Kettering Foundation and the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, Kettering encouraged and took an active interest in various fields of medical research, as well as basic research in photosynthesis and magnetism. He was not, however, a pure research scientist; his interest in photosynthesis and magnetism lay in a hope of finding new sources of energy for human use.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kettering delivered many lectures and addresses, but they have not been collected. During the 1930’s he wrote frequently for the Saturday Evening Post.

Secondary sources are T. A. Boyd, Professional Amateur. The Biography of Charles F. Kettering (New York. 1957); Mrs. Wilfred C. Leland. Master of Precision. Henry M. Leland (Detroit, 1960), written with Minnie D. Millbrook, which challenges Kettering’s claim to be the inventor of the electric starter; Arthur Pound, The Turning Wheel (New York, 1934); John B. Rae, Amercian Automobile Manufacturers: The Fist Forty Years (Philadelphia, 1959), PP. 109-114, 155-157, 198-199; and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., My Years with General Motors (Garden City, N.Y., 1964), PP. 108-111, 222-225, 249-261, 341-359.

John B. Rae

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