Charles Kettering

By: Susan Stahl and Jedotta Ziemer                       March 2002

Born on a farm near Loudonville, Ohio, on August 29, 1876, Charles Franklin Kettering was the fourth of five children in an "unremarkable family" (Bernstein, 85). He grew to be a lanky, large-featured man whose most notable attribute was his very weak eyes. Kettering grew up "with an innate curiosity about the laws of nature and science and their application to solving everyday problems". A young boy, who grew up on an Ohio farm, Charles Kettering earned his first money, fourteen dollars, by cutting a neighbor's wheat crop. With this fourteen dollars, he bought a telephone from a mail order house. This inquisitive young boy dismantled the phone to study it. This interested him more than actually using the phone for its intended purpose. Through this, a great career was soon to be launched.


A Hard Worker and Determined Student
At the age of nineteen, Charles accepted a teaching position in a one-room schoolhouse. Charles was a gift in the classroom, so in 1896 he decided to enter the College of Wooster. Due to intense hours of study and very long days that he put in, his eyesight soon started to deteriorate. The disappointed Kettering had to drop out of Wooster and return to his teaching job in Loudonville again. His strong will pushed him in 1898 to reenter college, but this time at Ohio State University. His eyesight took a turn for the worst and he was forced to drop out once more. Charles decided to get a job working on telephone lines as a pole digger for the time being. For the next two years, Kettering was a hard working employee for the Star Telephone Company in Ashland, Ohio. In 1901, the persistent and dedicated Kettering returned to Ohio State and enrolled in the engineering department. Two important factors allowed him to complete his education: "the engineering department waived the mandatory mechanical drafting class his eyes could not have mastered and his roommates read each day's lessons to him out loud each evening" (Bernstein, 85). Graduation day came for this brilliant young man in 1904, with a degree in electrical engineering.


Establishing a Name for Himself After Graduation
Highly recommended by his physics professor, he received a job at NCR (National Cash Register) company that same year. Kettering took the first train to Dayton, "farther from home than he had ever been" (Bernstein 86), where he left an inspirational footprint in this city. He brought enthusiasm, intensity of interest, and the boundless energy essential to success in the tough business of developing new products at NCR. At NCR, he was put in charge of the development department called, "Inventions 3."

(back to the top)


Why Engineering?
Although Charles F. Kettering wore many professional hats, including those of a schoolteacher, a supervisor, an entrepreneur, and a director of research, his chosen field was that of engineering. His love of engineering came from the fact that he enjoyed working with blueprints, tables, and charts, and found a challenge in trying to make things run more efficiently.

Inventing at NCR
In 1904, Kettering came to Dayton to work as a member of NCR's Inventions Department. Earning fifty dollars a week, among his inventions were the motor for the electric cash register and the "OK Charge Phone." Early cash registers required the cashiers to hand crank the device in order to ring up a sale. A large motor attached to each cash register to serve this purpose would have been too costly. Instead, Kettering realized that only a small electric motor was necessary because it would only need to run intermittently, in totaling each sale. For the charge phone Kettering rearranged existing components, connecting a telephone to a solenoid activated stamping device, which resulted in the saving of time and money for department stores. By using Kettering's OK system, cashiers could check a customer's credit without having to call the manager to the register.


First Automobile Ride
In realizing the number of Kettering's inventions that benefited the automobile industry, one might be inclined to think that Kettering owned an automobile early on; however, this is not so. The truth is that Kettering's first ride in an automobile was not until 1905. It was while he was with his wife on their honeymoon that Kettering noticed a stranded motorist. With a quick look under the hood, he fixed the problem; as a token of thanks the driver took the newlyweds for a spin.


Automobile Improvements
While employed at NCR, Kettering spent his nights, weekends, and earnings on ideas to improve the automobile. He and Edward Deeds, the assistant superintendent of NCR, set up a workshop in Deeds' barn. While working to improve the performance of Deeds' car, Kettering invented many aspects that contributed to the betterment of the automobile. Manipulating Deed's unreliable ignition, Kettering realized that sparks were wasted and as a result a costly battery had to be replaced every one hundred miles. Components of the new ignition included a single, intense, accurately-timed spark, resulting from Kettering's stationary coil. This system would, in turn, extend the life of the battery tenfold.


What do Nabisco and Delco Have in Common?
Kettering's fascinatingly efficient ignition caught the attention of Henry Leland, president of Cadillac. Leland soon placed an order for 8,000 of them. By 1909, Kettering and Deeds had their own industrial research laboratory, called Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company. Kettering did not care for the name; therefore, a fellow mechanic had the idea to shorten the name to "Delco," much like National Biscuit Company was referred to as "Nabisco." Having made a name for himself as an inventor, Kettering resigned from NCR in September of 1909.


Putting Women in the Driver's Seat
Have you ever worried that dying would be the outcome of attempting to start your car? It sounds like a ridiculous anxiety; however, this was very real concern to the motorists during the beginning of the twentieth century. It was this concern that brought Kettering to invent the self-starter. After hearing of deaths occurring as a result of attempting to hand crack a car Henry Leland, president of Cadillac, vowed that no more motorists would be killed or injured in this way. When Leland asked Kettering to devise a safer and easier way to start the automobile, Kettering was up for the challenge. Using the same idea as the small motor on the electronic cash register, ultimately, Kettering's invention served three purposes. In addition to starting the car, the self-starter also ignited the fuel and illuminated the lights. It was this invention that put women in the driver's seat.


Wizard of GM
In 1916, Kettering and Deeds sold Delco to General Motors. As Vice President of GM and manager of its Research Corporation for 27 years, Kettering focused his energies on such things as modern refrigeration, air conditioning, safety glass, automatic transmission, the lightweight diesel locomotive, and the high compression engine, to name a few. Ultimately, Kettering became known as the Wizard of General Motors, held 450,000 shares in GM stock, and generated a wealth of $200 million.


"The Bug"
Little is it known that the Germans were not the first in developing the guided missile. Rather, they were predated twenty years by Charles Kettering and Lawrence Sperry. Nicknamed "The Bug," the aerial torpedo created by Kettering was able to carry 300 pounds and fly fifty miles. Resulting from his previous work in cost-efficient automotive engineering, Kettering's only downfall regarding "The Bug" was that he sacrificed too much accuracy and performance for the concern of expense. Spending a mere $408,699 for his aerial torpedo project, Kettering was granted a patent in April 1919.


Other Inventions of Kettering
*Freon for refrigerators and air conditioners: Bet you didn't know that Kettering's home at Ridgeleigh Terrace was the first air conditioned home in America!
*Leaded gasoline
*Quick drying paint for automobiles
*Spark plug
*Safety glass
*Four-wheel brakes
*Automatic transmission
*Portable electric generator
*Electric railway gate
*Synthetic aviation fuel
All together, Charles F. Kettering was the holder of over 140 patents!


"There are two kinds of people in my book: those who work at desks with pencil and paper - the businessman, the executive, the planner - and the ones who work on the bench with screwdrivers and pliers. I'm the screwdriver-pliers type. I have never done anything at a desk in my life, because I found out that whatever I thought I could do there wouldn't work down at the bench. So I started on the bench first and worked back up the other way. You have to do these things the way they will work" (Kettering Digest, 26).

Why He Lived With the Sales Gang
The work on the O.K. Charge Phone brought Kettering into association with Richard H. Grant, an outstanding salesman at NCR. Kettering was hardly caught hanging around with other inventors or the executive fellows, "I lived with the sales gang," he later recalled. "They had some real notion of what people wanted" (Boyd 53). They attracted Kettering because sensitivity to what people wanted had been a marked characteristic all through his life.

Moving On to Bigger and Better Things
Kettering had spent five wonderful, inventive years at NCR, but he felt that it was time to move on to a bigger and better opportunity for himself. Kettering and E. A. Deeds partnered up when Henry Leland decided to take a gamble on their ability and integrity. Leland told them that he would put Kettering's ignition in the Cadillac if 8000 could be produced within a certain amount of time. Soon after that meeting, the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, shortened to Delco, was incorporated on July 21, 1909, with a capital stock of $150,000, two-thirds of which was common stock. Kettering and Deeds each owned half the stock and together became joint owners of all contracts and patents. Kettering became the vice-president of the company.


Delco Was Purchased By General Motors
Kettering and Deeds sold Delco to GM for 9 million dollars. It was purchased to supply starters and electrical parts for its cars. From the outset, GM set its sights on Kettering to head the new group and he soon became the Vice President of Research. Kettering took to his own and wrote out his job description which said that he would have "no responsibility and authority," because "the minute you take responsibility and authority, you quit researching" (Jewett, 72). Kettering believed that innovation and progress were the chief demands of his bosses - the buying public. During a speech to businessmen he said, "I am not pleading with you to make changes, I'm telling you, you have got to make them - because old Father Time will not take care of you if you don't change" (Jewett, 72). As head of the new GM Research Labs, a position he held for 27 years and the largest such organization in the world, "Boss Ket" worked on and solved many problems including high-octane gasoline, electric refrigeration and quick-drying auto paint. Kettering's list of patents was rivaled only by Edison. He did much work with diesel engines and is credited with the invention of the modern railway locomotive. There is no doubt that Charles F. Kettering is responsible for much of General Motor's success, helping to increase its market share from 8% to 68% during his tenure.

How Can We Develop Inventors?
Charles Kettering concluded that inventing is simply a state of "open-mindedness" (Beardsley, 2). He also observed that an "inventor is simply a fellow who doesn't take his education too seriously" (Beardsley, 2). As Kettering saw it, real inventors are people who aren't always trying to find a short cut for the tedious attempts and failing experimentation. Real inventors don't think intelligence and education are by themselves guarantees of success. Kettering's main point was that "tedious cut and try is the only way we know to come up with a new design," and "the next thing we must tell engineers is that tediousness is something they must endure and not reject even though they have a technical education" (Beardsley, 2).

(back to the top)


Vacations, Birthdays, and Awards
In his later years, Kettering enjoyed spending vacations with his two loves, his wife Olive and their boat, Olive K.The latter birthday celebrations of Kettering often became community and even national events. The town of Loudonville hosted a picnic luncheon on the Kettering homestead for his seventieth. On Kettering's seventy-fifth, Dayton and General Motors jointly hosted an event for engineering retrospection with exhibits of Kettering's work. On August 29, 1956, Kettering' eightieth birthday, the townspeople around his homestead hosted a celebration, and Kettering had the opportunity to meet President Eisenhower. Kettering received hundreds of honors, honorary degrees, and patents in his lifetime and was even placed in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Of all the awards Kettering received, he was most honored to become the first president of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, a nonprofit institute that encouraged engineering education. Following a series of strokes, Kettering passed away November 25, 1958, at the age of 82. Although he left much of his fortune to friends and family members, Kettering also willed a large trust fund to the Kettering Foundation and Kettering, Inc.


Kettering's Widespread Activities
They have included many other fields of endeavor in addition to industrial research. The Kettering Foundation is studying photosynthesis and has contributed much fundamental information. Another undertaking sponsored by Kettering was the World War II Fever Therapy Project, as well as giving support to the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research.



¨ "There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it."

¨ An inventor is simply a person who doesn't take his education too seriously. He tried and fails maybe 1,000 times. If he succeeds once, then he's in."

¨ "We have a lot of people revolutionizing the world because they've never had to present a working model."

¨ The biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work."

¨ "Modern psychology teaches that experience is not merely the best teacher, but the only possible teacher. There is no war between theory and practice. The most valuable experience demands both, and the theory should supplement the practice and not precede it. Briefly, the cooperative job is the student's laboratory in which he learns the details of his profession."

¨ "Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down."

¨ "You will never stub your toe standing still. The faster you go, the more chance there is of stubbing your toe, but the more chance you have of getting somewhere."

¨ "An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he's in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots."

¨ "Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. The only time you don't fail is the last time you try something, and it works. One fails forward toward success."

¨ "With willing hands and open minds, the future will be greater than the most fantastic story you can write."


Comic Relief
¨ "People are very open-minded about new things - as long as they're exactly like the old ones."
¨ "A problem well stated is a problem half solved."
¨ "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."
¨ "Thinking is the one thing in the world upon which no one has ever been able to put a tax or tariff."
¨ "Engineering is a combination of brains and materials. The more brains, the less materials."


(back to the top)


For Further Reading

§ Barker, Ronald, Anthony Harding. Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work. Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., 1992.

§ Beardsley, Charles. "Computers, Creativity, and Kettering." Mechanical
. September, 1988.

§ Bernstein, Mark. Grand Eccentrics: Turning the Century: Dayton and the Inventing of America. Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press, 1996.

§ Boyd, T. A. Professional Amateur: The Biography of Charles Franklin Kettering. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1957.

§ Jewett, Dale. "100 Events." Automotive News. April, 1986.

§ Kettering Digest. Dayton, Ohio: Reflections Press, 1982.

§ Kovarik, Bill. Charles F. Kettering and the 1921 Discovery of Tetraethyl Lead in the Context of Technological Alternatives. 1994.

§ Leslie, Stuart W. Boss Kettering: Wizard of General Motors. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

§ Young, Rosamond. Boss Ket-A Life of Charles F. Kettering. New York: David McKay Company, Inc. New York 1961.

back to the top