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Charles Kettering

Charles Franklin Kettering (August 29, 1876 – November 24 or November 25, 1958) was an American inventor, engineer, businessman, and the holder of 186 patents.[1] He was a founder of Delco, and was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. Among his most widely used automotive inventions were the electrical starting motor[2] and leaded gasoline.[3] In association with the DuPont Chemical Company, he was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems, as well as for the development of Duco lacquers and enamels, the first practical colored paints for mass-produced automobiles. While working with the Dayton-Wright Company he developed the "Bug" aerial torpedo, considered the world's first aerial missile.[4] He led the advancement of practical, lightweight two-stroke diesel engines, revolutionizing the locomotive and heavy equipment industries. In 1927, he founded the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research foundation.

Early life

Charles was born in Loudonville, Ohio, USA, the fourth of five children of Jacob Kettering and Martha Hunter Kettering. Poor eyesight gave him headaches in school. After graduation he followed his sister Emma into a teaching position at Bunker Hill School. By all accounts he was an engaging and innovative teacher. He attracted students to evening scientific demonstrations on electricity, heat, magnetism, and gravity.[5]

He took classes at The College of Wooster, before transferring to The Ohio State University. He was a member of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. Eye problems forced him to withdraw, and he took a job as foreman of a telephone line crew. At first, the termination of his studies caused him to be depressed.[6] Then he found ways to apply his electrical engineering skills on the job, and his spirits revived. He also met his future wife, Olive Williams. When his eye condition improved, he was able to return to his studies and graduated from OSU in 1904 with an electrical engineering degree.

The Cash, the Barn Gang, and Delco

Kettering was hired directly out of school to head up the research laboratory at National Cash Register. Kettering invented an easy credit approval system, a precursor to today's credit cards, and the electric cash register, which made ringing up sales physically much easier for sales clerks all over the country. Kettering distinguished himself as a practical inventor. As he said, "I didn't hang around much with other inventors and the executive fellows. I lived with the sales gang. They had some real notion of what people wanted." [7] During his five years at NCR, from 1904 to 1909, Charles Kettering secured 23 patents for NCR. He attributed his success to a good amount of luck but added, "I notice the harder I work, the luckier I get."[8]

Beginning in 1907, his NCR colleague Edward A. Deeds convinced Kettering to develop improvements for the young automobile. He told Kettering, "There is a river of gold running past us," [9] implying that, with their know-how, all they needed to do was dip into it. Deeds and Kettering invited other NCR engineers, including Harold E. Talbott, to join them nights and weekends in their tinkering at Deeds's barn. They became known as the "Barn Gang," and Kettering was their leader. Boss Ket, they called him. They set their first task as improving ignition, replacing the magneto.[10] In 1909 Kettering resigned from NCR to work full-time on automotive developments. The Barn Gang incorporated as Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco.

Belle Isle and the Self-Starter

Early automobiles required a hand crank to create a sufficient charge to start ignition. Occasionally, when the spark lever was not properly set, the hand crank kicked back, causing serious injury: a broken wrist, arm, or shoulder. On a winter night in 1908 the result was much worse.

Byron Carter, founder of Cartercar, came across a stalled motorist on Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River. He gallantly offered to crank the car for the stranded driver. When she forgot to retard the spark, the crank kicked and broke Carter's jaw. Complications developed and Carter later died of pneumonia. When Cadillac chief, Henry Leland, heard the news, he was distraught. Byron Carter was a friend; the car that kicked back was a Cadillac. "The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it," he told his staff.[11]

Leland's engineers were able to build an electric self-starter but not small enough to be practical.[12] He called Charles Kettering. The engineers at Delco worked around the clock to get the job done by the February 1911 deadline. Kettering later described their work thus: They didn't have a job so much as the job had them.[13]

Kettering's key insight lay in devising an electrical system that performed the three purposes it continues to serve in modern cars: starter and, as generator, producer of spark for ignition and current for lighting.[14] Leland approved their product for his 1912 model and placed an order for 12,000 self-starters. Delco, the research and development outfit, had to quickly learn the business of production.

Later career

Delco was eventually sold to General Motors, where it became the foundation for the General Motors Research Corporation and Delco Electronics. Kettering became vice president of General Motors Research Corporation in 1920 and held the position for 27 years.

With Henry Leland, he developed a self-starter for the Cadillac which won a Dewar Trophy as a result in 1913.[15]

In 1914, Flxible was incorporated with the help of Kettering, who then became president of the company and joined the board of directors. Kettering provided significant funding for the company in its early years, particularly after 1916, when Kettering sold his firm, the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), to GM for $2.5 million. Kettering continued to serve as president of Flxible, until he became chairman of the board in 1940, a position he held until his death in 1958.

Between 1918 and 1923, he led the research and development at GM's Dayton research laboratories to commercialize air-cooled engines for cars and trucks.[16] They used fans forcing air across copper fins for heat dissipation. The commercialization, attempted between 1921 and 1923, was unsuccessful due to a combination of factors, nontechnical and technical. Air-cooled engines have had commercial success before and since, in various fields (small engines, aircraft, cars), but the historical moment of GM's "copper-cooled" automotive engine was inauspicious.[16]

Kettering was later heavily involved in the research for new diesel engines, including two-stroke designs and lightweight designs. This research was instrumental in the development of diesel locomotives, the first of which was a 600-horsepower unit that powered the "Pioneer Zephyr" for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.[17] The Electro-Motive series of corporations, including its incarnation as a GM division, became a principal builder of locomotives. The work of Kettering and colleagues with diesels also led to the Detroit Diesel Series 71 family of two-stroke diesel engines for trucks and heavy equipment. In an interview about his diesel research, he was asked if the development of diesel locomotive engines presented any unusual problems. His classic response was, "Let it suffice to say that I don't recall having any trouble with the 'dipstick'".

Kettering and Deeds had a lifelong business, professional and personal relationship. In 1914, recognizing that Dayton was among the leading industrial cities in the US due to the skilled engineers and technicians in the city, they founded the Engineers Club of Dayton and the Foreman’s Club of Dayton which later on became the National Management Association. After his death, his body lay in honor at the Engineers Club prior to interment in the mausoleum at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.


Kettering held 186 U.S. patents. He invented the all-electric starting, ignition, and lighting system for automobiles. Electric starters replaced crank (manual) starting of automobiles. First incorporated in the 1912 Cadillac, all-electric starting aided in the growth of the US auto industry by making the automobile easy for anyone to start. Other patents included a portable lighting system, Freon,[18] and an incubator for premature infants. His engine-driven generator was combined with storage batteries to form a "Delco Plant", providing an electrical power for farmsteads and other locations far from the electrical power grid.

In 1918 Kettering designed the "aerial torpedo", nicknamed the Kettering Bug. The 300 lb paper-mache missile had 12 foot cardboard wings, and a 40 hp engine. It could carry 300 lbs of high explosives at 50 mph, and cost $400. The "Bug" is considered the first aerial missile, and lessons learned from the "Bug" led to development of the first guided missiles, as well as radio-controlled drones.[4]

He developed the idea of Duco paint and leaded gasoline.[3] He helped develop diesel engines and ways to harness solar energy. He was a pioneer in the application of magnetism to medical diagnostic techniques.

His inventions, especially the electric automobile starter, made him wealthy. In 1945, he helped found what became the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, based on the premise that American industrial research techniques could be applied to cancer research.

He was awarded the Franklin Medal in 1936.

On January 1, 1998, the former General Motors Institute changed its name to Kettering University to honor Kettering as a founder.[19]

Personal life

Kettering married Olive Williams of Ashland, Ohio, in 1905. Their only child, Eugene Williams Kettering, was born on April 20, 1908.

He built a house, "Ridgeleigh Terrace", in 1914. According to local sources, this house was the first in the United States to have electric air conditioning.[20] Ridgeleigh Terrace was the home of his son, Eugene Kettering, until his death. Eugene's wife, Virginia Kettering, lived in the house for many years, restoring and redecorating it. In 1994, the house was seriously damaged in a fire, but Virginia Kettering, then in her 80s, rebuilt it according to the original blueprints. She continued to live there until she moved to a suite in the nearby Kettering Medical Center when in her 90s.


In 1998, GMI Engineering and Management Institute (formerly General Motors Institute), of Flint, Michigan, changed its name to Kettering University in honor of Kettering. His ideals, prowess, and belief in co-operative education continue there. Kettering is also remembered through the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a cancer research and treatment center in New York City, and through the Kettering Health Network, which includes several hospitals and medical center campuses as well as Kettering College in Kettering, Ohio.

The city of Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, was named after him when it was incorporated in 1955.

The former U.S. Army Air Service testing field, McCook Field, is now a Dayton park called Kettering Field.

Several U.S. public schools are named after him:

  • Charles F. Kettering Sr. High School in Waterford, Michigan
  • Charles F. Kettering Elementary School in Ypsilanti, Michigan
  • Charles F. Kettering Elementary School in Long Beach, California
  • Kettering Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio
  • Charles F. Kettering Sr. High School in Detroit, Michigan
  • The Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati is housed in the Kettering Lab
  • The engineering building at the University of Dayton is called Kettering Lab

The endowed Olive Williams Kettering Chair of The College of Wooster Department of Music is named in honor of his wife.

The Kettering Science center on the Ashland University campus in Ohio is named for him.

Kettering Hall at Wilmington College is named for him.


  • U.S. Patent 1,150,523 Engine Starting Device, Filing date: Jun 15, 1911

See also



  • Cornelisse, Diana G. Splendid Vision, Unswerving Purpose: Developing Air Power for the United States Air Force During the First Century of Powered Flight. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio: U.S. Air Force Publications, 2002. ISBN 0-16-067599-5.
  • Bernstein, Mark. Grand Eccentrics: Turning the Century: Dayton and the Inventing of America. Wilmington: Orange Frazer Press, 1996.
  • Leslie, Stuart W. Boss Kettering: Wizard of General Motors. NY: Columbia University Press, 1983.

External links

  • Kettering Foundation
  • Kettering University
  • Kettering Family Philanthropies
  • All-electric starting and Freon
  • Inventor Hall of Fame
  • Article includes a photo of Ridgeleigh Terrace
  • Charles F. Kettering Memorial Hospital
  • Engineers Club of Dayton
  • Biography of Charles Kettering
  • Today in Science History - collection of radio talks given by Kettering in 1942-1945 on science and invention, including transportation.
  • IEEE
  • FBI file on Charles Kettering
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir

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