We’re going back to the old school again this week’s Gearhead Guy You Should Know: Charles Kettering. He was undoubtedly one of the smartest guys to ever work in the automotive world. His name can be directly linked with electric starters, electronic ignition and lighting systems, Freon, leaded gasoline, and more than 300 patents that had his name on them throughout his career. Oh yeah, he also founded Delco. Yep, that Delco.
His early life was typical of many people in the late 1800s—hard. Like many, he lived on a farm and had to work to help support the family venture. Legend has it that the first money he ever earned on his own was $14.00 paid by a nearby farmer to Kettering for harvesting wheat. The story goes that Kettering took that money and bought a newfangled telephone, which he promptly took apart, studied, and reassembled.
It would take him time and sweat, but Kettering graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1904. It must have been an amazing thing to hold that degree in the early 1900s when most of the country still thought electricity was some kind of mythical wizardry. There were few people before or since who would put their studies to such great practical use as Kettering did for the gearhead world.
Working first for a cash register company, Kettering was able to essentially create the first electric cash register. His innovations were legend in the halls of his employer National Cash Register, but a guy of his caliber was not destined to be chained to such pedestrian machinery for very long.
Seeing that the Dayton, Ohio, area was loaded with young, bright engineers, Kettering and a fellow engineer from National Cash Register named Edward Deeds decided to form their own research and development company known as the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) in 1909. Their stated goal was to work on designs and technology pertaining to automotive electrical systems.
It took the think tank less than three years to invent and refine the electrical starter, electrical ignition system, and semi-modern electric lighting for cars. It took no time at all for General Motors to snap up every ounce of this technology for use in its cars. Freeing the world from crank-start cars was a massive thing. Cadillacs had the electric starters first, but the entire GM line was soon to follow. You no longer needed to risk life and limb to get your car running.
Company executives were so impressed with the entire operation that GM bought the DELCO company, and put Kettering on its payroll as chief of the GM Research Corporation. For a man of Kettering’s tastes and talents, this was a dream position. The world was his oyster and he, with huge financial backing from the company, was able to let his mind go places where otherwise it couldn’t.
“Boss Ket” as he was known through the company became one of the most influential people in American transportation during the era that he headed up the GM Research Corporation, turning his brains onto the railroads and working with several companies that he suggested GM buy, and they did, he was instrumental in the creation of the diesel locomotive. Kettering headed up the design team for the massive (but comparatively light weight) diesels that would provide power for the trains. The compact size of the engine allowed stylists to make the trains aesthetically pleasing, and hence, the streamliner locomotive was born. They were cheaper to operate, faster, and more user friendly than steam. It was the innovation that saved the rails as a viable transportation commodity in the 1930s. He was once asked about the design challenges involved with the diesel engine and he famously said, something to the effect of, “The dipstick did not present any trouble.”
Kettering invented all manner of automotive things during his career, like quick drying paint that made assembly line painting possible, modern shock absorbers, safety glass, lots of groundwork for the modern automatic transmission, and many that weren’t automotive related like an incubator for premature babies, a treatment for venereal disease, and groundbreaking ways to use solar energy.
In 1998 GM renamed the school formerly known as the General Motors Institute to Kettering University in his honor. He spent a large portion of his own fortune to open up the now world-renowned Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to fight the deadly disease. He truly was an amazing mind.
Where did all those guys go?
Charles Kettering is a gearhead guy we should all know because he was able to use his genius to benefit humanity just as much as he did with the development of the automobile.