Kettering, Charles F.

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Charles Kettering
Charles Franklin “Boss” Kettering was an American inventor and manufacturer who helped found the General Motors Research Laboratories. In his later years, he was named a vice president and director of the General Motors Corporation.



Education and Early Professional Career

Kettering was born on a farm near Loudenville, Ohio on August 29, 1876. He was educated locally and later completed his collegiate studies at Ohio State University in Columbus in 1904. He graduated with the degree of mechanical engineer in electrical engineering.

During his tenure at Ohio State, Kettering became an installation man for the Star telephone Company of Ashland, Ohio. He moved to Dayton after his graduation and was there employed by the National Cash Register Company in the capacity of inventor and engineer for about seven years. At National Cash Register, Kettering astonished experts and his colleagues by developing the electric cash register, a job that many said could not be done. During his stay National Cash Register, he helped to revolutionize the industry through his inventions and improvements to accounting and calculating equipment.

When he left the National Cash Register Company, Kettering and his business partner Edward A. Deeds organize the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO). He had met Deeds while working for National Cash Register and Deeds had a connection with the Republic Motor Car Company of Hamilton, Ohio. It was through this connection that Kettering and DELCO began to investigate and produce solutions to the shortcomings of the electrical equipment used in the automobile industry.



Kettering, the Automobile, and the Electric Self-Starter

The Electric Self-Starter

One of the first problems that Kettering tackled was the automobile ignition system. After a couple of years of development and testing, he had a breakthrough on his electric ignition system which increased the driving range of an automobile from a possible 200 miles to over 2,000 miles on a single set of dry cell batteries. In 1909, a number of automobile manufacturers began using this system, the most important of which was the Cadillac Motor Car Company.

Kettering continued to work on his electrical starting, lighting and ignition systems and was encouraged by Cadillac General Manager Henry Leland to develop his idea for a self-starter. In late 1910, Kettering had completed his first prototype starter and it was installed on a Cadillac. After testing and redesign, this car was presented to Leland who had his engineers perform a series of exacting tests on the prototype which passed in a satisfactory manner.

Before the self-starter could go into production, a couple of unfortunate setbacks occurred. Kettering suffered a broken leg while testing an experimental car and put on bed rest. Shortly after that, the garage where the test car was housed caught on fire and the car was badly damaged. According to legend, Kettering defied doctor’s orders by climbing from his sick bed and racing to Detroit in order save the test car and damaged self-starter thus averting failure.

Kettering and DELCO began manufacturing the electric self-starter in August of 1911 and it was introduced on the 1912 Cadillac. That year, Cadillac won its second Dewar trophy, the highest award in the automobile industry at the time, for pioneering the electric starting, lighting and ignition systems.



Kettering and General Motors Research Laboratories

Despite a detour into the manufacturing arena, Charles Kettering continued to push the research and development envelope. In 1916, he and Edward Deeds sold DELCO to the United Motors Corporation and established a Research Laboratory in Dayton to further these pursuits. In 1920, this laboratory was taken over by the General Motors Corporation. Kettering was put in charge of the organization that became known as General Motors Research Laboratories. In 1925, the laboratory was moved to Detroit to combine with the company’s other research endeavors.

Kettering continued to lead the research activities of General Motors until his retirement in 1947. During his tenure as head of the General Motors Research Laboratories, Kettering and those in his employ contributed to the improvement of the automobile and the transportation industry through innovations such as, ethyl gasoline, DUCO paint finishes, crankcase ventilation, balancing machines, the two-cycle diesel locomotive engine, etc.

“Boss Ket” lead the push for progress in the automotive industry. He believed that research should be a cooperative enterprise involving the integrated talents of all sorts of engineers and technicians. In his capacity as head of the General Motors Research Laboratories, he functioned as a sort of spark plug, setting off one scientific explosion after another.


Sources

General Motors Public Relations Department Press Biographies: Charles F. Kettering

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