The Kettering Legacy: How GM Set the Standard for Innovation

Written by William Pelfrey.

Technological innovation has been at the core of General Motors’ identity ever since the early contributions of the renowned inventor Charles "Boss" Kettering.

Charles "Boss" Kettering

Seeking a way to eliminate the dangerous and cumbersome hand-crank starter that was standard on all automobiles of the day, Kettering invented the industry’s first workable electric starter in a laboratory set up in a barn near Dayton, Ohio, in 1911.

Kettering demonstrated his new invention to Henry Leland, head of GM’s Cadillac Motor Division, and Leland immediately saw its potential. Kettering’s self-starter was made standard on the 1912 model year Cadillac, which was advertised as "the car that has no crank." It made the car safer and simpler for all drivers, especially women, and was soon adopted by the entire industry. Today, it is widely considered the most important automotive innovation since the internal combustion engine.

Kettering joined General Motors in 1916. In 1920, he headed the new General Motors Research Laboratories (GMRL), the industry’s first full-time in-house research center. Under his leadership, GM pioneered dozens of milestone innovations, including DUCO paint, Ethyl gasoline, the two-cycle diesel engine, independent front-wheel suspension, and the fully automatic transmission.

When he died in 1958, Kettering held more than 140 patents and honorary doctorate degrees from more than 30 universities.

Today, the Kettering legacy of innovation lives on in the GM family.

Recent milestones include the Precept concept car, the first drivable vehicle to achieve the fuel efficiency equivalent of 80 miles per gallon of gasoline; the AUTOnomy concept vehicle, the first vehicle to combine fuel cell propulsion with "by-wire" technology to allow steering, braking, and other vehicle systems to be controlled electronically rather than mechanically; and the Chevrolet Volt concept, incorporating new design and materials technologies as well as a radically new rechargeable drive system allowing the vehicle to run on either electricity, gasoline, E85 ethanol, or biodiesel fuel.

Technological innovation remains at the core of GM’s identity, just as it did in "Boss" Kettering’s day.

William Pelfrey

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